MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia regulators have made many changes to ensure massive coal slurry ponds don't fail from the bottom and flood underground mines, but federal officials said Thursday they must do more to document and reduce risks from nearby mining activity.
Mining has the potential to destabilize loose or liquefied contents, and it's not good enough to rely on mine maps that may be outdated and inaccurate, the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement said in its third report on West Virginia's 132 slurry impoundments.
Field director Roger Calhoun said OSM issued a variety of recommendations that the state Department of Environmental Protection is voluntarily embracing, but "not because we found any dire conditions."
"We don't have any imminent threats to be taken care of," he said.
West Virginia has already taken action where it knew mining was occurring, Calhoun said. "What we've said is, look again at minable seams" and rely on drilling, remote sensing technologies and other tools to ensure that mine activity is not happening.
"If there's not mining," he said in a conference call with reporters, "there's no risk."
The reviews began after the massive failure of a former Massey Energy impoundment in Martin County, Ky., in 2000.
Slurry burst through the bottom of a 68-acre holding pond, sending black goo through an underground mine and into 100 miles of waterways. The spill polluted the water supply of more than a dozen communities and killed aquatic life before reaching the Ohio River.
OSM says there have been three smaller failures, all in Virginia, since 1996.
West Virginia has more slurry impoundments than any other state, but it hasn't had a major failure since 1972, when the earthen dam at Buffalo Creek collapsed after heavy rain. The ensuing flood killed 125 people, injured 1,100 others and left some 4,000 homeless.
Calhoun said his agency reviewed 15 sites for the latest report, and it's planning similar reviews of impoundments in six other states — Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia. Completing that will take about three years.
Critics of the coal industry have long complained that operators and regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent future impoundment failures. For at least a decade, they say, state and federal regulators have allowed coal companies to build or expand the massive ponds of gray liquid and silt atop loose and wet coal waste — an unstable base that creates hazards for people and the environment downstream.
The industry, however, argues impoundments are the best-engineered, most-scrutinized earthen structures in the world.
The West Virginia Coal Association said it has cooperated with regulators "to improve the technical analysis" of impoundments. But Vice President Jason Bostic said Thursday it's disappointed with the current OSM review, "which has been conducted largely behind closed doors with little or no outreach or communication" with operators.
"The agency never requested any information from the industry that may have satisfied their concerns, nor did they contact the industry to make them aware of the pending release of these reports," Bostic complained. "Sensationalism has never advanced meaningful dialogue and progress with respect to developing a path forward."
In all, there are nearly 600 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states, including 104 in Kentucky.
Slurry is a byproduct of washing coal to help it burn more cleanly. Companies have disposed of the dirty water and solids in various ways over the years, injecting it into abandoned mines, damming it in huge ponds and, less commonly, disposing of it with a costly dry filter-press process.
OSM laid out several continuing concerns about West Virginia's regulatory system, including the practice of allowing smaller ponds or "slurry cells" to be built on top of larger ponds once they're capped with solid material. The contents under the cap could still be loose or liquid, and the increasing pressure from the smaller cells could increase the likelihood of a breakthrough, it said.
Under current rules, the state takes no special precautions when new mining begins near a capped site.
The report also found that DEP inspectors often lack knowledge of the details for impoundment closure plans and that DEP files often lack records critical to determining whether an impoundment is compliant.
Jim Pierce, a senior engineer in DEP's mining division, said the state has been revising its rules since 2003 and will adopt the federal recommendations.
"We're going to embrace those and carry those out," he said.
That includes requiring more detailed, engineer-certified evaluations from companies and applying the most conservative approach to the safety zones around both the impoundment basins and embankments.
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Upper Big Branch
Twenty-nine <a href="http://www.facesofthemine.com/faces-of-the-mine-upper-big-branch-memorial-page/" target="_hplink">miners</a> died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5, 2010. The mine, located in Montcoal, W.Va., was owned and operated by the Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy.<br><br>The Mine Safety and Health Administration <a href="http://wvgazette.com/News/montcoal/201009170861" target="_hplink">has said</a> that sparks from a worn-out piece of machinery combined with a buildup of coal dust caused the accident. Massey Energy has <a href="http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2011/01/28/massey-continues-to-dispute-msha-on-ubb-cause/" target="_hplink">continued to say</a> that a buildup of methane gas caused the explosion.<br><br>At a public meeting detailing the federal investigation, Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for mine safety and health at MSHA, said that there were two sets of books on mine conditions kept by Massey workers -- an accurate log that included safety problems, and a separate, watered-down version for federal and state inspectors to see.<br><br>The Upper Big Branch explosion was the <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304450604576415683464733192.html?KEYWORDS=upper+big+branch" target="_hplink">worst</a> U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.
Crandall Canyon Mine
On Aug. 6, 2007, six miners were trapped in the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, Utah, after roof-supporting pillars <a href="http://www.msha.gov/genwal/ccSummary.asp" target="_hplink">failed</a> and ejected coal over a half-mile area. Ten days later, three more people were killed by a subsequent collapse during the rescue effort.<br><br>According to the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/genwal/ccSummary.asp" target="_hplink">official</a> accident investigation summary released by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the catastrophe was the result of "an inadequate mine design." Unsafe pillar dimensions and an poor engineering management review contributed to the collapse.<br><br>In the above photo, family and friends carry the the body of Dale Black -- one of the rescue team members -- to his burial site at Huntington City Cemetery.
Darby Mine No. 1
On May 20, 2006, five miners were killed in an explosion at Darby Mine No. 1 in Holmes Mill, Kentucky. According to information <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/darby.htm" target="_hplink">released</a> by the United States Mine Rescue Association, the explosion was the result of methane gas that was ignited by the cutting of a metal roof strap.<br><br>The miner who was working on the roof strap with a cutting torch had a functional methane detector tucked away in his pocket, a sign that it was not being used to check continuously for the potentially lethal gas. The USMRA also says a cutting torch should not have been used at the time.
On Jan. 2, 2006, an <a href="http://www.msha.gov/sagomine/sagomine.asp" target="_hplink">explosion</a> at a mine in Sago, W.Va., killed 12 workers and severely injured one. The 13 miners were <a href="http://www.msha.gov/Fatals/2006/Sago/ftl06C1-12.pdf" target="_hplink">forced</a> to barricade themselves within the mine after the explosion -- caused by elevated levels of carbon monoxide and methane -- destroyed 10 seals used to separate a closed area of the mine.<br><br>Ben Hatfield, CEO of the International Coal Group, which owned the Wolf Run Mining Company that ran the Sago Mine, received criticism when the families of the fallen miners were falsely informed that the 12 men had lived. In an interview with NPR, workers and family members who were present when Hatfield broke news of the deaths <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5134307" target="_hplink">described</a> the scene as "chaos."
In March 1976, a succession of explosions at the Scotia Mine in Oven Fork, Ky., claimed a total of 26 lives.<br><br>The first blast happened on March 9, killing 15 men. During rescue efforts on March 11, a second explosion killed 11 more.<br><br>Investigators <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/scotia.htm" target="_hplink">concluded</a> that both explosions were caused by the ignition of a methane-air mixture inside the mine.
Consol No. 9
An explosion at the Consol No. 9 mine in Farmington, W.Va, killed 78 people on Nov. 20, 1968. The explosion was followed by raging <a href="http://www.wvculture.org/history/disasters/farmington02.html" target="_hplink">fires</a> that brought rescue operations to a halt.<br><br>A <a href="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97115205" target="_hplink">memo</a> from a federal investigator that surfaced in 2008 revealed that a safety alarm on a ventilation fan had been deliberately disabled before the explosion. The alarm, which hadn't been working for as long as 90 minutes before the blast, could have saved the lives of the 78 miners.<br><br>The tragedy at Farmington led to the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/mshainfo/mshainf2.htm" target="_hplink">passage</a> of the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969. That act paved the way for the <a href="http://www.msha.gov/REGS/ACT/ACTTC.HTM" target="_hplink">Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977</a>, the legislation that currently governs the Mine Safety and Health Administration's activities.
On Nov. 13, 1909, a fire killed hundreds of workers in a coal mine in Cherry Hill, Illinois.<br><br>According to <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/cherry.htm" target="_hplink">reports</a> from the United States Mine Rescue Association, kerosene torches were used that day after the mine's electrical system broke down. Hay brought into the mine to feed mules that worked underground caught fire after being parked under one of the torches.<br><br>The fire quickly spread, causing the deaths of 259 men and boys who worked in the mine.
Monongah Nos. 6 And 8
On Dec. 6, 1907, explosions occurred at a pair of nearby mines in <a href="http://www.msha.gov/disaster/monongah/monon1.asp" target="_hplink">Monongah</a>, West Virginia, killing 362 men and boys. The blast could be felt as far as eight miles away.<br><br>It wrecked the mine's ventilation system, allowing toxic gas to fill the area and hinder rescue efforts. Though investigators aren't certain of the <a href="http://www.usmra.com/saxsewell/monongah.htm" target="_hplink">cause</a> of the explosion, it was probably started by the ignition of firedamp -- combustible gas made up mostly of methane -- and coal dust within the mine.