Coming up: OSMRE to release key coal-dam study

January 10, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Photo of the Brushy Fork impoundment, by Vivian Stockman, with flight services provided by SouthWings.

UPDATED: We’ve post a story on the Gazette’s website summarizing the OSM report:

West Virginia regulators have not adequately examined the risk for coal-slurry impoundments across the state to break into adjacent underground mine workings and cause a disaster like the one more than a decade ago in Martin County, Ky., federal investigators say in a report released this afternoon.

U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement engineers outlined at least eight types of lapses discovered in a four-year examination of practices at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Some of the problems remain unresolved, despite state-ordered actions in 2001, reform rules issued in 2003, and a previous OSM report on the matter that was provided to DEP officials in 2008.

I’ve posted a copy of the new OSM report here.

Early this afternoon, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement will release a long-awaited report on its examination of the potential for coal-slurry impoundments across West Virginia to “break through” into adjacent underground mine workings. Specifically, the report looks at how well the state Department of Environmental Protection evaluates the potential for these “breakthroughs” to occur.

In an unusual move, OSM officials have scheduled a press conference (and teleconference) to discuss the results of the report. Agency field staff here in Charleston do numerous topic-specific oversight reports every year, and this is the first time anyone I’ve talked to remembers them having a press conference. I asked Chris Holmes, an OSM spokesman in Washington, D.C., about that, and all he would say was that agency officials felt a press conference would be a good way to get information about the report out to the media and the public.

At least one person I talked to this morning, WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman, didn’t understand the need for a press conference:

We questioned that. A press conference with something like this would tell people that they are going to release something that’s a problem or that people need to know about.

But Randy says that’s not necessarily the case here. In fact, he told me, the OSM report — which WVDEP officials have already seen — says right up front that federal investigators found “no imminent threat” of a breakthrough at any of the 15 impoundments examined as part of the review. Randy did say:

There are some unanswered questions and gaps in data … The information they are suggesting needs to be available in the files and available for consideration by the DEP , we can’t argue that the information shouldn’t be there. I’m not going to argue for less information.

Also, Randy said:

I didn’t view any of [the OSM findings] as an indictment of DEP’s program. It’s the state-federal partnership coming together to improve things.

Well, OSM previously released some preliminary findings, based on a smaller set of impoundments, and as we reported at the time:

Federal investigators have identified serious deficiencies in West Virginia’s effort to ensure coal slurry impoundments do not break into nearby underground mines.

Department of Environmental Protection officials do not properly apply “safety zone” rules for impoundments built on top of underground mine workings, according to the report by the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

OSM investigators found DEP officials did not require proper drilling to identify nearby mine workings at two of three impoundments examined for the study.

OSM also found DEP approved one Massey impoundment in Logan County, despite the serious concerns raised by the state agency’s own permit review engineer.

OSM officials have been working on the current breakthrough study since at least 2009, but the agency has been taking a closer look at coal-slurry impoundments since 2001, after a breakthrough at the Massey Energy impoundment in Martin County, Ky., caused an environmental disaster that luckily did not claim any human lives. After Martin County, a National Academy of Science team recommended improvements in the way various agencies — including OSM and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — regulate coal-slurry impoundments, but the Bush administration rejected those proposals and the Obama team hasn’t really resurrected them. OSM has put together a white paper on impoundment breakthroughs, and that document was eventually published in a technical journal.

At least one longtime mine safety advocate, engineer Jack Spadaro, told me this morning that he thinks OSM has been stalling the release of this report — and that doing so was a disservice to the public:

They’ve put the public at risk this whole time. They were trying to ignore the issue.

We’ll see in a bit what the OSM report says. But it’s also worth remembering that OSM has another key study that’s underway — and is overdue for being released — that examines whether coal operators are properly compacting coal refuse as they use it to build and expand these impoundments. Spadaro notes that questions about compaction are important not only for the safety of communities downstream from impoundments, but also in the context of worker safety and accidents like the one that claimed the life of a CONSOL Energy employee late last year.

Stay tuned …

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