OSM study: Coal dams fail compaction tests

April 24, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

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

Well, a coalition of citizen groups had scheduled a press conference tomorrow morning, to release some leaked results of a key federal safety study of coal industry waste impoundments. But the cat is out of the bag, as they say, with the results  also being leaked to The Washington Post. The Post reports tonight in a short item on its website:

Many of the man-made ponds for storing toxic sludge from coal-fired power plants have dangerously weak walls because of poor construction methods, according to the synopsis of a study for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement obtained by The Washington Post.

Tests of the density of these impoundment walls showed flaws at all seven sites surveyed in West Virginia, with only 16 field tests meeting the standards out of 73 conducted, the 2011 report says.

Unfortunately, of course, we’re actually not talking about “toxic sludge from coal-fired power plants.”  The OSM report is about an agency investigation into the safety of coal-slurry impoundments — huge dams that are made of and used to store the waste generated by preparation plants that are used to clean raw coal before it is shipped to power plants. The Post story, by Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, actually appears to explain that more clearly later on:

Slurry, also known as coarse coal refuse, is what is left over once companies wash coal to enable it to burn more efficiently. Coal firms have disposed of this combination of solids and water in a few different ways: damming it in large ponds, depositing it in abandoned mines and using a dry filter-press process to compact it.

Updating: The Post changed the lead of its online story to refer to “man-made ponds for storing toxic sludge from coal mining operations…”

The document that’s the basis for the story is a  this one-page executive summary that explains:

OSM engineers became concerned that embankment construction quality control may be inconsistent when they observed cases of material being placed under wet conditions,, excessive lift thickness, and consultants recording passing test results when visual observations (pumping and rutting) indicate the material may not be adequately compacted.

So OSM hired a consulting firm to perform compaction testing on a selected group of the hundreds of impoundments across West Virginia’s coalfields. And they found:

Results of the testing tend to indicate that the coarse refuse is not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved specifications. Failing field density tests occurred at all seven of the sites investigated. Of 73 field density tests performed at the seven sites, only 16 yielded passing results.

And the kicker:

These results indicate the quality control methods used during embankment construction may not be achieving the desired results.

OSM had originally planned to release this study last fall, at least according to the plan described in the agency’s 2011 oversight report on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. But somewhere along the line, the plan changed, as the agency explained in the 2012 oversight report:

Prior to publishing, results of this study will be compared with those of a similar study, currently being performed by the WVDEP. The OSM and WVDEP studies will be completed in the future.

In late 2011, OSM turned down my Freedom of Information Act request for the raw test result data. The agency also turned down requests from citizen groups for that same data.

OSM spokesman Chris Holmes said that the agency “found that the data used to generate this draft report was not complete” and “generated more questions than a clearly definable, scientifically sound answer.” According to Holmes:

OSM determined that the data gathered was not sufficient to fully answer the question and make a determination.  OSM is now gathering additional data and asking other government agencies to evaluate both the methods and results.

This disclosure comes just a few months after January’s release of a major OSM report that found, as we reported at the time:

West Virginia regulators have not adequately examined the risks that coal-slurry impoundments across the state could break into adjacent underground mine workings and cause a disaster like the one more than a decade ago in Martin County, Ky.

For more on that story, read Coal Tattoo posts here and here.

7 Responses to “OSM study: Coal dams fail compaction tests”

  1. Christopher says:

    Is the location of the seven sites known to the general public? Do ‘we’ have access to this information?

  2. Dianne Bady says:

    It seems almost unbelievable to me that DEP regulators permitted a surface mine – with regular blasting taking place – right next to the Brushy Fork impoundment pictured above.
    Just plain common sense should dictate that major blasting should not take place near a huge dam – whether or not the dam material is adequately compacted.

  3. Ralphieboy says:

    Don’t worry. When one breaks, wiping out small towns and killing a bunch of people, the coal operators will just call it an “act of God” and continue business as usual.

  4. Mari-Lynn says:

    This entire situation with the OSM documents is alarming. What is OSM hiding by not making these documents public? What is the truth about these coal dams’ safety? There seems to be plenty of reason for the grave concerns of the citizens and groups.

  5. Paul Corbit Brown says:

    Is it any wonder? Imagine, more than 20 peer reviewed scientific studies, published in reputable sources, have been COMPLETELY ignored by our state government. I guess they all feel, as do many coal operators, that people’s lives are merely a “cost of doing business”.

    The precautionary approach used by real scientists states if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an act.

    But then, WV government has never been much of one for believing in or responding to science, unless of course it allows another quick ton of coal to leave the state…And then when a catastrophe occurs they will rush to the site, pray and say it’s an act of god, hug the families, and then pass yet another piece of meaningless legislation while we all wait for it to happen all over again (remember Sago, Aracoma, UBB, Buffalo Creek, Martin County, KY?)

  6. Mary Ellen DeClue says:

    Thanks for the valuable information. It is time that OSM investigates the horrors of coal mining and the toxic coal slurry impoundments.

    I wish OSM would delete from their home page that coal was essential for national security. This misinformation on their web site seems to glorify and to promote coal at any costs or harm to communities. It really upsets me that more and more coal is exported while the pollution remains.

    Illinois has committed itself to fossil fuels, instead of renewable energy. Coal and gas operators have moved in and are given the red carpet.

  7. Mary Ellen DeClue says:

    The concept that coal is essential for the Nation’s energy security is what I should have said in my prior statement. The U S will never transition off coal with the idea that national survival is dependent on it.

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