EPA releases reports on AEP coal-ash dam in W.Va.

November 16, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


The site of the AEP Philip Sporn plant in Mason County, as seen from the air. The coal-ash dams in question are located along the river, south of the plant.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have finally  made public the contractor’s report upon which they based their decision to require additional testing and warn the public about possible structural problems at two American Electric Power coal-ash dams in Mason County, W.Va.

The report by EPA contractors from the firm Dewberry is among three new documents made public today by federal officials, as part of their continuing probe of impoundments across the coalfields where utilities dump toxic ash from coal-fired power plants. EPA also made public a response by AEP and then a reply to that prepared by EPA contractors.

If you recall, EPA warned the public about concerns regarding the two  dams at AEP’s Philip Sporn Plant near New Haven on Oct. 29 — oddly enough, sending out the press release the day before AEP planned a huge celebration just up the road at its Mountaineer Plant to kick off a carbon capture test project there. But at the time of the press release, EPA refused to release its contractors’ report publicly. They did give it to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and I asked WVDEP to provide it to me. But I haven’t heard back in response to that request.

Initially, EPA outlined its concerns about the two Sporn dams this way:

As part of that effort, EPA contractors identified factors at the AEP Philip Sporn facility that are similar to the Kingston facility – specifically, both facilities piled coal ash and bottom ash around the impoundment to raise the impoundment’s walls.  To ensure the impoundment’s stability, EPA is requiring AEP to conduct two tests: a liquefaction test to determine if the foundation will become unstable under certain pressures, and a slope stability test to determine if the impoundment’s embankment will fail under certain pressures. 

The new documents show that EPA contractors had recommended the agency list the Sporn facilities as being in “poor conditions” and outlined these reasons:

The classification reflects concerns of the dam assessors about ongoing sloughing of downstream dikes, the ongoing occurrence of ground vibrations that could affect slope stability, the use of fly/bottom ash as a material of construction and foundation for the existing dikes, and a lack of stability analyses that address these concerns.

In response to information submitted by AEP, the EPA contractors are now recommending that the Sporn facilities be upgraded and listed as in “fair condition.” According to this document, EPA contractors  made this change:

… Because the facility is located in a region of low incidence and low intensity of earthquakes …

But, the EPA contractors are still recommending a site-specific analysis of the coal-ash dumped at the Sporn site to determine how stable it is. On its Web site, EPA says:

Finally, EPA has directed another of its engineering contractors to conduct a peer review of the Dewberry draft report on the Philip Sporn facility, as well as a review of the conclusions reached in Dewberry’s November 10, 2009 memorandum.  This peer review will be completed the week of November 16, 2009, and will be posted on the website once it has been received and reviewed by EPA.

And in a news release just issued, EPA says:

Though EPA does not believe the impoundments pose an imminent threat to the surrounding communities based on the draft report’s assessment and follow-up technical reviews, EPA issued an information request letter requiring the company to conduct several studies to assure the safety of these impoundments. The company is required to provide the results of those studies to EPA within 90 days. The company has agreed to perform the requested studies. The agency will continue to work with AEP and state and local officials and will use all necessary authority to assure the safety of the facility. 

Keep in mind that a separate review by the WVDEP’s dam safety section not only found its own problems with these two Sporn dams, but also found two other coal-ash dams near the Sporn site that state regulators didn’t even know existed.

And, interestingly, the Sporn site was not listed among the 43 coal-ash facilities at 22 sites that EPA initially provided information about to the public.  It’s the only coal-ash impoundment that’s not on that list for which EPA has issued any sort of public warning.

7 Responses to “EPA releases reports on AEP coal-ash dam in W.Va.”

  1. rhmooney3 says:

    The underlying issue — The Main Thing — is professioal engineers fulfilling their ethical responsibilities. (Professional engineers are required to notify appropriate authorities responsible for public safety of any potetial risk or danager that may exist — such authorities are not suppose to have to find unreported ones.)

    National Society of Professional Engineers
    Code of Ethics for Engineers


    I. Fundamental Canons

    Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall:

    Hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public.
    Perform services only in areas of their competence.

    Issue public statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

    Act for each employer or client as faithful agents or trustees.
    Avoid deceptive acts.

    Conduct themselves honorably, responsibly, ethically, and lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession.

    Engineers shall at all times strive to serve the public interest.
    Engineers are encouraged to participate in civic affairs; career guidance for youths; and work for the advancement of the safety, health, and well-being of their community.

    Engineers shall not complete, sign, or seal plans and/or specifications that are not in conformity with applicable engineering standards. If the client or employer insists on such unprofessional conduct, they shall notify the proper authorities and withdraw from further service on the project.

  2. rhmooney3 says:

    EVERY dam has risk of failure so that monitoring and reanalysis by qualified engineers is always necessary to quantify and address such risks and, more so, to keep public safety officials well aware of the level of the risks.

    Teton Dam collapsed abruptly on June 5, 1976 (3:08 minutes)

    This is an infamous failure of a newly constructed dam as its reservoir was being filled. It released nearly 300,000 acre feet of water, then flooded farmland and towns downstream with the eventual loss of 14 lives, directly or indirectly, and with a cost estimated to be nearly $1 billion.

  3. RAMC says:

    I have been a practicing engineer for over 51 years. Let’s not make this so-called professional engineer issue something more than it is. An engineering graduate takes a test 5 years after graduation and gets a certificate and then has the colossal attitude that somehow that makes one a “professional” engineer. It does not. It’s one’s experience as an engineer that counts. The certificate does not give anyone the right to call themselves a “professional” engineer, just like one’s degree in engineering it only gives you the right to learn. Regarding the issue of ethics, everyone regardless of profession should possess important attributes, namely honesty and integrity. It is those attributes that require one to tell the truth and to perform one’s work “professionally”, not a “certificate to learn”.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Actually, under the laws of West Virginia, passing the exam does give one the right to call oneself a “professional engineer.”

    And, while it would be great if everyone acted in an ethical way, the real world doesn’t work that way. So, the government regulates engineers and is authorized to take away their licenses if they don’t act in a professional and ethical way …

    For West Virginia, those regulations are posted online here:

    There’s a list of enforcement actions from the last few years available here:


  5. Dell Spade says:

    How did engineers and ethics get involved in this discussion?
    Who said these were engineered structures?

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Dell Spade,

    Well, just for starters, the West Virginia Dam Safety Act (which these facilities fall under) requires:

    Plans and specifications for the placement, construction, enlargement, alteration, repair or removal of dams shall be in the charge of a registered professional engineer licensed to practice in West Virginia. Any plans or specifications submitted to the department shall bear the seal of a registered professional engineer.

    That’s W.Va. Code 22-14-6.


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