Coal Slurry Impoundments have become a major problems in the U.S. Regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent more failures at hundreds of such impoundments, which are dam-like structures, around the country. State and federal regulators allow coal companies to build or expand the massive ponds of gray liquid and silt atop loose and wet coal waste. That has been going on for at least a decade. Jack Spadaro, an engineering consultant and former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, had this to say:
They’re building on top of the existing slurry, and therein lies the problem. It’s wet and it has no stability. It’s creating hazards for all of us downstream.
According to reports, there are 596 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states. West Virginia has 114, more than any other state, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Kentucky has 104, while Illinois is third with 71. 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, including:
• injecting it into abandoned mines;
• damming it in huge ponds; and
• disposing of it with a costly dry filter-press process, which is used less often.
It was reported that Spadaro dedicated his life to preventing that sort of disaster from happening again. Interestingly, he actually helped write the nearly 40-year-old regulations that are now on the books to guide slurry pond construction. The regulations give the government and coal companies detailed design, compaction strength and other criteria so the structures will withstand internal pressures and additional stress from big rain storms. The regulations require the operator to do daily, quarterly and annual inspections, while the state must make monthly checks. MSHA relies partly on data provided by the companies to detect problems, which is an obvious weakness in the system.
Just two years ago, MSHA said it had improved oversight of impoundments, with better training and a new handbook on dam management. The agency made the comments on the 10th anniversary of a disaster in Martin County, Ky., when slurry burst through the bottom of the Martin County Coal Corp.’s 68-acre holding pond, sending black goo through an underground mine and into 100 miles of waterways. The spill in 2000 polluted the water supply of more than a dozen communities and killed aquatic life before reaching the Ohio River. Massey Energy eventually paid $46 million for the cleanup, along with about $3.5 million in state fines and an undisclosed sum to residents.
Spadaro, who helped investigate the Kentucky accident, believes MSHA could go further, requiring better engineering evaluations of potential weak spots in impoundments. He claims regulators at all levels continue to go easy on the industry in favor of coal production. Rather than require companies to build new dams on solid earth or dispose of the wastewater and refuse through a drying system, they allow the operators to raise the height of existing dams and ponds. Federal law, according to Spadaro, requires impoundments to be stable during all phases of construction.
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