DEP blames coal-mine spill on vandalism

About 1,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide solution leaked from a storage tank at a closed Kanawha County coal mine, apparently after someone shot two holes in the tank, the state Department of Environmental Protection said Monday.

The incident occurred at the former Catenary Coal operation in the Blue Creek area near Sanderson.

ERP Environmental Fund now owns the site and uses the 20 percent solution of sodium hydroxide in treatment of long-term, mine-related water pollution at the location, according to DEP records.

DEP said that its inspectors had not located a fish kill related to the spill, and West Virginia American Water Company said it did not anticipate any impact on the company’s Elk River drinking water plant, which is located about 31 miles downstream from the mine site.

Laura Martin, the water company spokeswoman, said the spill’s “amount, concentration and distance” made any damage to the drinking water supply unlikely.

The incident was reported to the DEP’s spill hotline at about 10:30 a.m. Monday, but the DEP did not provide any information about the matter until more than five hours later, when agency public information officer Jake Glance issued a press release and provided a copy of the spill hotline report.

The DEP press release said that the agency’s “initial investigation” had “determined the leak was caused by two small caliber bullet holes in the tank.” It said that the “exact time of the incident is under investigation,” but that officials believe it occurred “sometime since the evening of Thursday, March 16.”

DEP said that the sodium hydroxide was normally released from the tank into a treatment pond at a “controlled rate,” but that “because of the vandalism” the chemical entered the ponds “uncontrolled, causing excessive pH.”

DEP said it would be issuing a notice of violation for exceeding permitted effluent limits for pH, but that “initial in-stream testing indicated pH remained in compliance.”

And while DEP said the incident was caused by vandalism, the agency also said it planned to cite the company because the tank had “inadequate secondary containment” for potential spills.

DEP’s records show that the tank in question has a capacity of 2,500 gallons and was installed in May 2015. The DEP aboveground storage tank registry lists the tank’s type of secondary containment as “other.” The registry also noted that the tank is not within the zone of critical concern or the zone of peripheral concern near a drinking water intake.

Glance said that answers to follow-up questions about the incident would not be available by press time Monday evening.

The president of ERP Environmental is Virginia businessman and conservationist Tom Clarke. Clarke bought certain Catenary Coal sites as part of Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy, in what Clarke says is an effort to better reclaim the company’s former operations. Clarke got his start in mining reclamation while working with now-Gov. Jim Justice on environmental problems at some of Justice’s coal-mining operations.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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