Coal Tattoo

WVDEP: More problems found at Patriot site

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Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp......7.95x5.2.....Slurry spill at Winifrede Hollow.

Photo by Kenny Kemp / Emergency officials and environmental inspectors said roughly six miles of Fields Creek was blackened by a coal slurry spill in eastern Kanawha County last week.

Here’s today’s news from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has issued another Notice of Violation (NOV) to Patriot Coal’s Kanawha Eagle Prep Plant.

The NOV was issued by the WVDEP Division of Mining and Reclamation after a rapid rise in stream levels in Fields Creek Wednesday stirred up silt settled in the creek bed and resulted in discolored water entering the Kanawha River. The rise in stream levels was attributed to rapid snow melt.

The NOV requires the company to cease all activity that may contribute to conditions not allowable in state waters. The company must provide a durable surface on all roadways and evaluate all sediment control structures for retention time. The company must also submit a work plan detailing all cleanup efforts and management of high-flow situations. In addition, the work plan is to include scheduled daily monitoring of Fields Creek.

Patriot Coal’s ability to respond to the high-flow situation Wednesday was hindered by the company’s concerns for the safety of its workers in the swift-water conditions.

Earlier this week, the WVDEP modified an Imminent Harm Cessation Order, issued to Kanawha Eagle following last week’s slurry spill, to a NOV.

 

 

Why would anyone protest slurry impoundments?

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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.

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‘What’s going on?’

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Yesterday’s release of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training report on the November 2012 death of CONSOL Energy miner Markel Koon in a coal-slurry impoundment offered some frightening details of what happened — and also raised some serious questions about how well one of the nation’s largest coal producers managed a particularly dangerous sort of operation.

First, the report’s description of those moments just before and just after the collapse is really something else, providing a sobering picture of what these mine workers went through. As we explained in today’s Gazette:

At about 11:30 a.m., CONSOL engineer Paul Stuart Carter arrived at the site “after receiving numerous emails from Mr. [Michael] Friedline, [a CONSOL supervisor], in the past weeks concerning the high readings being obtained” on the embankment’s pressure monitor.

Carter and Friedline went to the location of the monitor, where they “observed excessive bubbling of water in the impoundment along the eastern toe/slope and east of the [monitor],” the report said.

“Mr. Carter asked Mr. Friedline if he had noticed the bubbling earlier in the day,” the report said. “Mr. Friedline said, ‘yes, but not as bad.’ Mr. Carter then stated, ‘we need to get off the fill.'”

Friedline radioed Koon, who was operating a dozer on the outer slope of the dump, telling him to leave the area.

The report itself continued:

Mr. Koon was pushing refuse up the slope to install berms and to seal and track loose material of the outer slope. Mr. Koon immediately trammed the dozer to the top of the slope when a large crack began to develop across the refuse fill area.

After the large crack developed, a large section of the fill immediately became unstable. Water/slurry shot through the developing cracks, causing large sections of refuse to break off, sinking into the impoundment.

Mr Koon was heard on the radio saying “what’s going on” as the refuse fill began to fail. The dozer was located on top of the outer slope with the blade toward the dam, when the material under the dozer became unstable. As the section of the refuse began to slide, it caused the dozer that Mr. Koon was operating to turn, going blade first into the water of the impoundment. The cab of the dozer was visible for a few seconds then sank into the water.

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

You’ve got to give Roger Calhoun some credit. When a dozen or so citizens showed up outside the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s Charleston field office, the local director didn’t hide inside. He came out — twice — to talk to the folks and answer questions from the media. He invited us in off the street.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Roger do this. He did it before two years ago, when citizens showed up to press him for action on their concerns regarding the Brushy Fork coal-slurry impoundment in Raleigh County.

And if you look closely in the photograph, you’ll see some rolled-up papers in Roger’s hand. Those are copies of the prepared statement from the Interior Department, OSM’s parent agency. That’s what the folks in Washington wanted him to read to the people and the press. Roger dutifully handed out copies. But he didn’t read it, and he certainly didn’t stick to the script the beltway handlers provided.

Now if you ask Roger (a longtime OSM manager who has run the Charleston office through administrations of both political parties), he’ll say some nice things about working for his current bosses.

For example, folks in Washington were all buzzing earlier this week with rumors that The Washington Post was going to break the story of this leaked OSM slurry dam study. And in fact the Post did get the story online first, though someone there didn’t know the difference between coal slurry dams and power plant ash impoundments. But Roger said he hadn’t been pressed to find out where the leak came from, unlike what happened a few years back when an early draft of an OSM report on mountaintop removal enforcement had been slipped to the media:

They were more concerned about finding out who leaked something. This time, I’m getting positive feedback from the administration for trying to do something to solve a problem.

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OSM study: Coal dams fail compaction tests

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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.

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Remembering the Buffalo Creek Disaster

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(A dog sits in Buffalo Creek hollow in the aftermath of the 1972 coal-slurry dam disaster in this photo by longtime Gazette photographer Lawrence Pierce)

Today is one of those days on the West Virginia calendar, a day that will live on in memories and newspaper clippings as a symbol of why we have strong laws on the books to regulate the actions of those in charge of the coal industry … It was 41 years ago that a series of poorly designed, badly constructed, and weakly regulated coal slurry dams failed on Buffalo Creek in Logan County.  The results are well known, and have been summarized here before:

A wall of sludge, water, and debris stormed down the hollow from Saunders to Man. By the time the Feb. 26, 1972, flood was over, 125 people had been killed. Another 1,100 were injured, and about 4,000 were left homeless.

For folks who want to read more today, I’d recommend going back to our 1997 Gazette series, Voices of Buffalo Creek, which is available online here. It’s also worth reading my friend Dr. Paul Nyden’s dissertation chapter about Buffalo Creek, which is online here. Part of the official state report on the disaster is online here.

It’s always worth remembering that problems with coal-slurry dams are far from a thing of the past, something found only in our history books.  Only in December, a United Mine Workers member was killed when part of a slurry dam at CONSOL Energy’s Robinson Run Mine collapsed. Two weeks ago, the federal government came in to try to force the closure of an unsafe slurry dam up in Barbour County.  Coal industry lobbyists and public relations agents — along with their friends among West Virginia’s political leadership — would rather the public not know about ongoing problems with coal slurry dams around the state.  But recent reports remind us of the dangers, and show again why a strong federal oversight of the coal industry is needed.

One of the best things to read on a day like today is  Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community, which concluded:

Survivors’ accounts, journalists’ unanswered questions, and the disappearance of the mining company official most directly involved — together with the remembrance of past disasters — brought a stunned citizenry to its feet. The public was jolted from the depths of sorrow and anguish to a sense of outrage and anger that continues to burn.

For the Buffalo Creek disaster, like the recent coal mine fire tragedies at Farmington, West Virginia, and at Hyden, Kentucky, could have been prevented — it need not have happened. Clearly and simply, people living downstream from the Buffalo Mining Company’s coal refuse dam at Saunders were the victims of gross negligence.

In Appalachia — sometimes known as “the last white colony of western civilization” — absentee owners of the region’s vast energy resources and their subservient homebred and imported politicians time and again are to blame for mass death and destruction. Time and again, those most at fault throw up smokescreens to obscure their responsibility.

Following the fire and explosion at Consol #9 Mine in 1968 which killed 78 men, Governor Hulett Smith shrugged apologetically declaring, “This is one of the hazards of mining.” Smith did not add that the Consolidation Coal Company was guilty of numerous violations of the mine safety laws in this mine. Another governor, Cecil Underwood, performed so well for the Island Creek Coal Company following its Holden # 22 mine disaster 5 in 1960 that he was elevated to the position of executive vice president of the company immediately upon leaving the governorship.

Aside from the attempted whitewashing of the more spectacular mass murders, our governors never decry the terrible fact that more than 120,000 coal miners have been killed in the coal mining industry since its beginning, that one out of every ten coal miners is injured each year and that an estimated one-half of the coal mining work force becomes crippled or incapacitated by the insidious black lung disease.

In this deadly drama the coal operators’ script — placing profits before people — has been followed line-by-line by some of our political leaders. In the case at hand, the center stage characters are behaving true-to-form.

– Thus, officials of the company called the disaster an “act of God” because God put all that water behind a dam that wasn’t designed to hold it.

– Thus, Assistant Secretary Hollis Dole of the Interior Department, testifying before a sub-committee of Congress, doubted whether the refuse dam was “hazardous” and subject to regulation by the Bureau of Mines.

– Thus, Governor Arch Moore, taking charge of relief operations, said the lethal dam had a “logical and constructive” purpose. According to the image-conscious Governor, “The only real sad part is that the state of West Virginia has taken a terrible beating that is worse than the disaster.”

Given the enormity of the avoidable destruction of human lives and values wrought by the man-made Buffalo Creek flood, and the public outcry for justice it aroused, such performances by official-dom will no longer be tolerated. They are recognized for what they are — smoke screen tactics. They have served, at least in this one case, to reinforce the citizens’ determination that such an event shall not ever happen again — anywhere.

MSHA seeks to close troubled slurry impoundment

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Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press has a pretty interesting story out this morning:

The U.S. Department of Labor wants a federal judge to order the immediate shutdown of a potentially dangerous West Virginia coal slurry impoundment it says hasn’t been certified by a professional engineer for two years.

In a filing in federal court, U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld argued Thursday that Energy Marketing Co. Inc. and owner Dominick LaRosa of Potomac, Md., are flouting federal law, ignoring violations and fines, and putting the public at risk.

The story goes on:

The 101 North Hollow Coal Refuse Impoundment is near Century in Barbour County and is associated with the non-producing Century 101 mine. The Mine Safety and Health Administration has labeled it “high hazard,” meaning a failure would likely cause fatalities.

MSHA says it was not certified for structural integrity as required by law in either 2011 or 2012. MSHA records also show EMCI has operated the mine and impoundment since Jan. 1, 2009, and has been cited for problems about two dozen times.

I’ve posted a copy of the Labor Department’s court filing here. Reading the story, I couldn’t help but think about how the West Virginia Coal Association  accused the federal Office of Surface Mining of “sensationalism” when OSM released its recent report on questions about the safety of some of West Virginia’s coal slurry impoundments. Some readers may recall this line from the coal lobby:

The West Virginia Coal Association believes that continuous progress has been made by the regulatory agencies and the coal industry to improve the design and operation of coal refuse impoundments across the state.   These structures are some of the most highly engineered and regulated structures found anywhere in the world, with detailed engineering and geo-technical analysis associated with their design, operation and maintenance.

In this Oct. 16, 2000 photo, 250-million gallons of coal slurry floods Coldwater Fork, which was spilled after the bottom fell from a 72-acre retention pond upstream several days earlier in Martin County, near Inez, Ky., flooding 28 miles of two streams.  (AP Photo/Lexington Herald-Leader, David Stephenson)

It’s been bizarre over the last few years to watch the coal industry and its friends in Congress try to pain the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement as a major solider in the Obama administration’s “war on coal” (see here and here, just for example). As if the election of a different president could somehow turn an agency that’s spent more than three decades as the “poor stepchild” of the Interior Department into the strong advocate for environmental protection and the rights of coalfield citizens that Congress had envisioned.

So it was really a hoot yesteday to see the West Virginia Coal Association blast OSM for the release of the agency’s new report on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s enforcement efforts regarding coal-slurry impoundments:

Over the course of this 12 year review, the industry has responded to previous issues in a prompt and professional manner when provided with an opportunity for an open dialogue with OSM, but that opportunity was not provided in this situation.  The agency never requested any information from the industry that may have satisfied their concerns nor did they contact the industry to make them aware of the pending release of these reports, or today’s media event. Sensationalism has never advanced meaningful dialogue and progress with respect to developing a path forward.

Sensationalism? First of all, it’s quite something to hear the publicists and lobbyists who make a nice living off the inflammatory and deceptive “war on coal” campaign against regulation of the mining industry call anything sensationalism. Come on, guys.  But the other thing is, while it was unusual for OSM to hold a press conference to release this report, agency officials handled this in anything but a sensationalistic manner.

I’ve been to press conference that were all about sensationalism. Several events years where minnows were dumped into a jar of poison water to show the effects of acid mine drainage come to mind. But this one? Roger Calhoun, OSM’s Charleston field office director was very measured in both tone and content, being careful to explain that his agency didn’t find any imminent threats to public safety, but simply believes the WVDEP needs to do more to make sure such threats don’t develop. And the OSM report itself is anything but sensationalistic. It’s written in dry technical terminology that would make it hard for any member of the public to really be sure what a serious issue we’re talking about here.

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

I mean come on, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman certainly hasn’t been shy about voicing his opinions about the Obama administration’s moves regarding coal regulation, but even Randy wasn’t jumping up and down to complain about what OSM was doing here:

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.

And it’s not like OSM rushed into this thing … they’ve been working on an examination of the potential for coal-slurry dams to “breakthough” into nearby underground mine workings for more than a decade, since the October 2000 disaster at Massey Energy’s operations in Martin County, Ky. They’ve released at least two preliminary reports on the issue. Industry officials know what OSM was looking at, and they had plenty of opportunities to reach out to OSM and make whatever points they wanted to make.

In its statement, the Coal Association made these claims about coal-slurry impoundments:

These structures are some of the most highly engineered and regulated structures found anywhere in the world, with detailed engineering and geo-technical analysis associated with their design, operation and maintenance.

If that’s true, then the plan announced by OSM and WVDEP — for the state to require companies to submit more proof that they’ve minimized the potential for breakthroughs — shouldn’t be a problem. You would think the industry would by pleased to provide that information, and ease everyone’s concerns, instead of making unfounded complaints about “sensationalism” by OSM.

Coming up: OSMRE to release key coal-dam study

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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.

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CONSOL miner update: Body found in dozer

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Here’s the latest word from CONSOL Energy, issued this morning:

Dive and rescue teams completed a series of pipe dives over the weekend that helped to more clearly define the exact position and location of the bulldozer in the Robinson Run Preparation Plant impoundment. With this new information, the teams repositioned the pipe and adjusted the water jets late last evening, in preparation for a dive this morning. This morning an opening was cut in the canopy of the bulldozer and the divers confirmed that our employee is inside the bulldozer cab.

As CONSOL Energy stated previously, this is a complex recovery effort that requires precision and time to execute safely and properly. We do not have an estimate on how long it will take to recover our employee from the bulldozer.

CONSOL Energy continues to provide regular updates to the family.

Investigation into the cause of the accident by MSHA, the West Virginia Department of Mines, CONSOL Energy and other parties, which began on Tuesday morning, is ongoing.

 And here’s what has been released today by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Divers have been in the water and have seen the cab. Efforts will continue today.

And later from MSHA:

Divers have confirmed that the victim is inside the cab of the dozer.  Recovery efforts continue.

 

Update on recovery at CONSOL impoundment

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WVDEP photo

Updates just came in from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and CONSOL Energy on their efforts to recovery the body of a United Mine Workers miner missing since last Friday following the collapse of a coal-waste embankment at the company’s Robinson Run mining complex in Harrison County. Among other things, it appears MSHA has approved CONSOL’s proposal to resume preparation plant operations — which includes pumping slurry into the impoundment, even before the body is recovered.

Here’s the MSHA update:

MSHA has modified the k-order to restart the prep plant, but as of Thursday evening, no material had been pumped to the slurry pond.

The diving plan has been approved by MSHA and the state.

A forensics dog was brought onto the property last night and gave a positive reaction, indicating that the recovery team is working in the right location.

The flotilla consists of eight barges. A 43-ton oscillating crane has been loaded onto and secured to the flotilla. It will be positioned with a 4-foot diameter pipe above the bulldozer.

The pipe will be used to pump fresh water down to push the sediment away from the dozer. The first dive will be attempted after the water has replaced the slurry in the pipe to the point where there is visibility.

The first dive will be attempted around 10 a.m. Saturday morning.

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Slurry safety: Learning from the CONSOL collapse

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It’s been nearly a week since the terrible collapse of a “saddle dike” at CONSOL Energy’s Robinson Run complex  in Harrison County, W.Va. Crews are still looking for the body of a United Mine Workers dozer operator who was killed when he and his machine were dumped into the operation’s huge Nolan Run slurry impoundment.

Thinking of what the man’s family must be going through is really unimaginable.  I couldn’t help but recall the congressional testimony more than six years ago from Wanda Blevins, whose husband’s body lay underground for 43 days until it was retrieved by rescue teams after the September 2001 explosion at the Jim Walter No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Ala. Crews had flooded the mine to put out a fire and ensure a safety recovery. I couldn’t help remember that, not far from Robinson Run, the bodies of 19 of the 78 victims of the Farmington Mine Disaster in Marion County remain forever entombed in the tunnels of that CONSOL operation.

This isn’t the first time in recent memory that working around a coal-slurry impoundment became a deadly proposition for a coal miner. For example, there was this incident in June 2002 at Arch Mineral Corp.’s Lone Mountain Processing site in in Lee County, Va.:

… At approximately 5:50 a.m., 49-year-old Willie Holmes, Jr. was fatally injured when the truck he was operating overturned into a coal slurry impoundment. The victim was backing a Model 773B Caterpillar 50-ton off-road truck along a haulroad to a designated dumping location when the truck went through the berm approximately 25 feet short of the dump, causing the truck to roll/slide down the slope and overturn into the impoundment. The victim was recovered from the impoundment at 1:25 p.m. and was transported to the Lee Regional Medical Center in Pennington Gap, VA where he was pronounced dead on arrival.

In their report, MSHA investigators concluded, among other things:

The provided roadway berm was not properly maintained. The berm was recently constructed and was composed of unconsolidated material. Since this section of roadway was almost zero percent grade and had no outlet for drainage, any water falling or flowing onto the roadbed was impounded. This caused the berm to become saturated and thus lose its function as a warning that the truck was nearing the outer edge of the roadway.

We’re far from having all of the facts in about what happened at the Nolan Run impoundment. But some details are starting to emerge, as we reported in this morning’s Gazette:

Federal and state records showed previous questions about stability and leaks at the Nolan Run impoundment, and outlined company concerns that construction to enlarge the dump had not been moving fast enough to keep up with slurry waste generated by the preparation plant at CONSOL’s nearby Robinson Run Mine.

The embankment that collapsed last week was part of a “saddle dike” that CONSOL was building to help raise the overall height of the facility to accommodate more slurry. CONSOL proposed the saddle dike on the opposite end of the facility from the main dam, to raise the embankment in a low spot, or “low gap”, in the surrounding topography.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials had approved that expansion in April 2009.

But earlier this year, CONSOL told DEP officials that the construction had been hampered by “an unusually wet fall and a mild winter” that “made it difficult to maintain the extended haul road and proper placement of embankment fill during inclement weather.”

CONSOL was concerned that the timing of the project’s completion “may be very close or even lag behind the filling of the pool with slurry,” a company engineer told DEP in a March 2012 letter.

The company submitted another plan for an “intermediate stage” impoundment expansion. DEP approved that proposal on June 18, 2012.

Jim Pierce, a DEP dam safety engineer who is investigating Friday’s incident, said such issues are fairly common at impoundments as coal operators try to ensure space to dispose of preparation plant wastes.

“They have to stay head of the slurry,” Pierce said. “It’s always a concern.”

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The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has now officially listed last Friday’s collapse of a slurry impoundment at CONSOL Energy’s Robinson Run operation in Harrison County, W.Va., as a fatality. In their now-public preliminary report on the incident, MSHA provides a few new details of the events immediately following the collapse:

On Friday, November 30th at approximately 12:15 p.m., a massive failure of the upstream face of the saddle dam for the Nolans Run Slurry Impoundment occurred at the Consol Energy, Robinson Run No. 95 Mine. A section of the saddle dam measuring approximately 650 feet long, 20 to 25 feet above the water’s surface, and 70 feet back from the water’s edge, broke and slid into the impoundment. Four miners were working in the saddle dam area when the failure occurred. Three of the miners and their equipment were swept into the impoundment. Two miners were standing near the face of the saddle dam looking over and recognized a failure was about to occur. They began to run but were pulled into the water. One of these miners swam to shore and the other was located and rescued by Nutter Fort Fire and Rescue. One bulldozer operator working nearest the face was inside his equipment when it slid into the impoundment and remains unaccounted for. The other bulldozer operator was further back from the face area and was not affected by the failure. Recovery operations are ongoing.

The miner’s name has not yet been released, at the family’s request.

This is the 19th U.S. coal-mining death so far in 2012. West Virginia leads the nation with 7.

Probe begins at CONSOL slurry impoundment

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UPDATED, 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012, with audio of CONSOL’s briefing earlier in the afternoon:


These photos, provided by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, show CONSOL Energy’s Nolan Run slurry impoundment near Lumberport in Harrison County, before and after the massive collapse of a coal-waste embankment/platform that has left a United Mine Workers member unaccounted for since Friday afternoon.

The photos weren’t taken from exactly the same angle, but the platform in question — being built by CONSOL as part of a plan to expand the site to continuing taking more coal-waste from its Robinson Run Mine — is shown in gray in the left-hand side of the top photo. Then, in the bottom photos in the bottom left corner, you can see the remains of that platform, with the “c” that’s carved out of it indicating the extent of the failure.

Here’s the full text of the latest update from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, provided early Tuesday evening:

Procedures have been put in place to begin moving barges out to the recovery location.

Dredging will continue from the shoreline for 50 feet to facilitate the movement of the barges to the work location.

A 25-foot buffer zone will be established from the shore, which will be illuminated. Anyone in this buffer zone will be required to have a spotter and be wearing a life jacket.

A certified marine surveyor will confirm the loads of the barges and the barge platform.

Barge platforms of various sizes will be moved to the recovery site. Multiple small boats will be used to maneuver the barges to the recovery site.

The recovery site will be anchored by 50-foot pipes installed in the slurry.

Life jackets will be worn by everyone on the floating barges and the platform.

Production has not yet resumed at the mine.

Informal interviews were conducted today as the investigation gets underway.

This construction was being done by CONSOL in the standard way most coal operators do this — they were bumping coal refuse on top of coal refuse to raise the embankment, a process that is becoming more and more controversial, with citizen groups raising questions about the safety and wisdom of doing it this way. The safety of the practice, experts say, depends on how solid — or how liquid — the material on the bottom is. We’ll get to hear a bit from CONSOL about this tomorrow. The company has scheduled what it calls a “technical background briefing” tomorrow with company vice president for safety Lou Barletta. The briefing, I’m told, will last only 15 minutes. News reporters will not be allowed to ask questions.

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Breaking: Tentative deal in Prenter slurry case

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Word just in from Boone County that a tentative agreement has been reached between residents of the Prenter-Seth community and Alpha Natural Resources, potentially resolving the major coal-slurry pollution case that was set to go to trial.

A court official confirms that the deal was reached earlier today in a court-ordered settlement meeting. No details have yet been made public, but further proceedings have been put on hold.

Jury selection had been ready to start today, with opening statements scheduled for next Monday. More background on the case available here, here and here.

Water lawsuit update: Blankenship and coal slurry

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As jury selection gets underway this week in the big coal slurry case brought against Massey Energy by the residents of the Seth and Prenter communities, we revisited an early slurry case with this story in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, reporting:

In the weeks before last year’s settlement of a major water pollution case, lawyers for Mingo County residents were saying they’d unearthed records indicating Massey Energy tried to cover up the extent of its underground pumping of coal-slurry waste.

Among the more interesting tidbits:

Lawyers for the residents also filed court records they argued showed then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship personally pushed for the slurry injection to save $55,000 in waste-impoundment construction costs.

Erkan Esmer, a one-time engineering consultant for Massey at its Rawl Sales & Processing Co. operations, testified about Blankenship’s slurry injection decision in a legal deposition in the case, brought by hundreds of residents who allege slurry polluted their drinking water.

“Well, I think Don thought that $55,000 was too much to spend and complained about that,” Esmer said in a sworn statement taken during the litigation.

SSP organizer Bobby Mitchell labeling a black water sample from Prenter. Photo from the Sludge Safety Project.

Important news in today from Boone County, where Circuit Judge William S. Thompson has handed residents of the Prenter area a significant legal victory.

Judge Thompson has ruled that residents can bring their legal case seeking medical monitoring related to coal-slurry pollution on a community-wide basis, rather than having to prove the elements of West Virginia’s medical monitoring requirements on a resident-by-resident, one-by-one basis. I’ve posted a copy of the judge’s ruling here, so you can read it for yourself.

These case involves more than 150 households and 361 individuals, but it’s not a class action (very few class actions are brought in West Virginia courts anymore, given that the Class Action Fairness Act sends them to federal courts). Judge Thompson noted evidence presented to him that showed handling the medical monitoring claims on a community-wide basis would cost about $90,000 to litigate, while handling them individually would cost nearly $1.9 million.

WVDEP releases Prenter water study

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Here’s the release just issued by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection:

A year-long study commissioned by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection on water supplies in the Prenter/Sand Lick area of Boone County did not reveal evidence of widespread mining-induced impacts to groundwater quality in the study area.

The study, which began in December 2010, was conducted by Triad Engineering, of Scott Depot, and was ordered by the DEP to evaluate allegations of negative impacts to the quality of groundwater being used as a drinking source by residents in the study area. Triad was asked to determine what human activity, including coal mining and mining-related activities, might have negatively affected drinking water sources.

The study area included all residences along Hopkins Fork of the Big Coal River and tributaries of Hopkins Fork from Seth to Prenter. A large portion of the study area, from Seth, upstream to Nelson, now has public water.

Domestic wells sampled for water quality were well distributed across the entire watershed, and therefore provided a representative characterization of groundwater quality in the study area.

“This was a thorough, comprehensive study,” DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman said. “I hope the results help put the people in the Prenter community at ease because we can point to laboratory test results from the wells that say the water quality is within Primary Drinking Water Standards.”

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Coming soon: Latest DEP report on Prenter water

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After filing my own blog post and print story on yesterday’s press conference on the new reports concerning coal-slurry contamination of the Prenter community’s water supplies, a couple folks pointed out to me the story that Taylor Kuykendall did for The State Journal’s website. In particular, they told me to check out the quotes from DEP Secretary Randy Huffman.

I did, and here’s what was in the story:

However, not everyone agrees with the idea that coal slurry injection has caused water problems at Prenter.

“We studied specifically the possibility the slurry injection had migrated into the water, and there’s not a geologic connection between where it was store and where their problem is,” Department of Environmental Protection Director Randy Huffman told the Associated Press. “The injection site in Prenter is not the source of their problems.”

It looks like the quotes were lifted from an AP story that is nearly three years old.

Now, some readers may recall — I’m sure Prenter-area residents will remember — that their community was not included in the coal-slurry injection study that WVDEP did a few years back. Agency officials believed the slurry injection occurred too long ago and too far from residential drinking wells to be a good fit for their Legislature-ordered review.

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SSP organizer Bobby Mitchell labeling a black water sample from Prenter. Photo from the Sludge Safety Project.

I’m just back from the Capitol here in Charleston, where folks from the Sludge Safety Project held a press conference to publicize the public release of two expert reports filed in the case filed by several hundred residents of the community of Prenter over their allegation that coal slurry has poisoned their drinking water.

The two reports are available here and here, and the bottom line, as described by the organization is:

Conclusion: coal slurry leaking out of the underground impoundments in the old coal mines and released from the plant or various discharge points within the NPDES permits in Laurel Lick and Sand Lick leach metals while percolating through the aquifer consisting of the coal waste valley fill, zone of shallow weathered and fractured bedrock and alluvium. The metals are thus transported downstream to the location of the residential water wells.

Speakers at the press conference included Laura Merner, Ph.D. candidate in hydrology and SSP volunteer, the Rev. Jim Lewis, and Prenter resident Jennifer Hall-Massey, whose story of watching her neighbors get sick and die was told so well in The Last Mountain film.

Interestingly, Rev. Lewis mentioned that they would have had a bigger crowd of West Virginia residents at the press conference, but that folks from the Rawl area, who recently settled their coal-slurry contamination lawsuit, are concerned about still being covered by a gag order issued by a panel of judges overseeing that case. If the gag order isn’t lifted, Rawl resident might not be able to travel to Charleston this legislative session to tell lawmakers about their experience and lobby for tougher regulation of coal-slurry handling and disposal.