Coal Tattoo

Why would anyone protest slurry impoundments?


The folks at Radical Action for Mountain Peoples Survival (RAMPS) were at it again today, as they announced in this press release:

This morning at 7:30 a.m. two activists paddled out onto the 2.8 billion gallon Shumate slurry impoundment in Raleigh County with banners reading, “Slurry Poisons Appalachia” and “Gov. Tomblin, Put Health Over Profit.”  Later this morning, one activist locked himself to a barrel of black water in front of Gov. Tomblin’s mansion in a Tyvek suit reading “Locked to Dirty Water”.   Activists are calling attention to the failure of the state government to protect its citizens from the abuses of the coal industry and the threats posed by coal slurry disposal.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t personally relish chasing these protesters around from time to time. I’d rather be working on other things. And this morning, that’s what I spent my time doing — much of it trying to track down some details and analysis to explain to our readers the proposed settlement in the FirstEnergy Harrison Plant transfer case.

But as we’ve discussed on this blog many times (see here, here and here), there’s a time-honored tradition in the Appalachian coalfields of using peaceful civil disobedience to raise important issues and push for much-needed reforms, especially when it comes to the safety and health of people who work in the coal industry and residents in coal communities. The most recent example involves the repeated protests — and arrests of protesters –– by the United Mine Workers seeking a fair deal from bankrupt Patriot Coal.

The Daily Mail gave a blow-by-blow account of the efforts of police to remove the protester from in front of the Governor’s Mansion. But it was kind of interesting to see — fairly well along into the incident — a Republican activist ask the Daily Mail’s Zack Harold what the protest was about. I’m not saying that the protest wasn’t newsworthy, or that giving folks who are into instant updates a blow-by-blow is such a terrible thing … And it’s certainly not such a bad idea to have the media on hand to keep an eye on how authorities treat the protesters. I’ve done my share of coverage watching these protests.

(UPDATED: Larry Messina, a former AP reporter now working for the Tomblin administration, was quoted in the AP’s updated story as criticizing the protesters: “This was the wrong way to do things, and as a result we’ve had maybe a dozen Charleston firefighters on campus and at least two trucks that hopefully were not needed elsewhere in this city,” said Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.  “It’s definitely a public safety concern.”)

But the public also needs to be informed that the stated reason for the protest — outlined in that RAMPS press release — raised some perfectly valid points, serious concerns about the safety and stability of the coal-slurry dams that exist throughout the state’s coalfields.


Just for example:

— Just this year, two Office of Surface Mining (OSM) investigations found serious problems with the WV Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) oversight, both in preventing impoundments from breaking through into underground mines and ensuring proper compaction, a key measure of impoundement safety.

— The compaction report revealed that over 75 percent of tests of coal slurry impoundments in West Virginia failed.

— In February, the U.S. Department of Labor asked a federal judge to order the immediate shutdown of an impoundment in Barbour County that had not been certified by an engineer for two years, because mine operators were “flouting federal law, ignoring violations and fines, and putting the public at risk.” WVDEP had the ability to shut down this impoundment, but it didn’t until weeks after the Dept. of Labor took action.

And not for nothing, but it was only last November when we saw how dangerous slurry impoundments can be for the miners who work around them.