- Malaysia Airlines pilots sometimes left cockpit door unlocked: U.S. businessman
- PHILLIPS: The benefits of defying ‘common wisdom’
- Judge strikes down Arkansas abortion law — nation’s toughest — as unconstitutional
- Court: Tenn. must recognize 3 same-sex marriages
- Russia claims to have downed U.S. drone over Crimea region; Pentagon denies
- John Daly shoots 90 at PGA Tour event: ‘I’m falling apart’
- Police: Man arrested in West Virginia may be linked to Alexandria killings
- Smile: Equipping cops with body-mounted cameras gains steam in Calif., N.Y.
- Obama to sign bill cutting taxpayer money for party conventions
- Half of Americans worried about second Cold War: poll
Critic questions way coal firms build slurry ponds
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With a driver and his bulldozer missing in a thick, dark lake of coal slurry, a mine safety expert and critic of the coal industry says regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent more failures at hundreds of similar dam-like structures around the country.
For at least a decade, state and federal regulators have allowed coal companies to build or expand the massive ponds of gray liquid and silt atop loose and wet coal waste, said Jack Spadaro, an engineering consultant and former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy.
“They’re building on top of the existing slurry, and therein lies the problem,” Spadaro said. “It’s wet and it has no stability. It’s creating hazards for all of us downstream.”
In all, there are 596 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states. West Virginia has 114, more than any other state, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Kentucky has 104, while Illinois is third with 71.
Slurry is a byproduct of washing coal to help it burn more cleanly. Companies have disposed of the dirty water and solids in various ways over the years, injecting it into abandoned mines, damming it in huge ponds like the one at Robinson Run and, less commonly, disposing of it with a costly dry filter-press process.
Spadaro’s criticisms follow the Nov. 30 failure of a section of embankment at Consol Energy's Robinson Run mine slurry pond near Lumberport in the north-central part of West Virginia. Two workers escaped after pickup trucks slid into the massive pond, but the dozer and driver are missing.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also declined comment on Spadaro’s charges, but Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said impoundment failures are rare.
“These are the most scrutinized and most engineered earthen structures in the world, certainly in this country,” he said. “They’re monitored routinely. They have lots of eyes looking at them. … Anytime there’s a heavy rainfall, the agencies are out there looking at them.”Pennsylvania-based Consol was working to raise the elevation of the impoundment when the accident happened, vice president for safety Tom Barletta said. Once the worker is found, the company will determine what happened “so we can learn from it and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future,” Barletta said.
The pond encompasses about 78 acres and is estimated to hold at least 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, the equivalent of more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Impoundments typically hold up over time. But they do fail, and in spectacular fashion.
In 1972, an earthen dam in Buffalo Creek in southern West Virginia collapsed after heavy rain, unleashing 130 million gallons of water, sludge and debris that killed 125 people, injured 1,100 and left 4,000 homeless.
Spadaro dedicated his life to preventing that sort of disaster from happening again and helped write the nearly 40-year-old regulations that are now on the books to guide slurry pond construction. The regulations give the government and coal companies detailed design, compaction strength and other criteria so the structures will withstand internal pressures and additional stress from big rain storms.
The regulations require the operator to do daily, quarterly and annual inspections, while the state must make monthly checks. MSHA relies partly on data provided by the companies to spot problems, which critics see as a weakness in the system.
Spadaro is not the only one to question the soundness of impoundments.
TWT Video Picks
By David A. Clarke Jr.
Blame Washington's intelligence failure, not lack of police
- CURL: We completely overhauled American health care to insure 4.2 million people?
- California gun store owner refuses to hand over customer list
- Bill Maher: God a 'psychotic mass murderer' who 'drowns babies'
- Firefighters discover church's Bible in Harlem rubble following gas explosion
- Crimea votes in favor of secession, U.S. rejects
- College group's diversity event canceled after excluding white people
- Trust me: Obama promises new overtime rules will be 'easier for everyone'
- McCaul offers scenario where missing Malaysian jet lands in hostile country to be use as missile
- EXCLUSIVE: FBI blocked in corruption probe involving Sens. Reid, Lee
- U.S. pilot scares off Iranians with 'Top Gun'-worthy stunt: 'You really ought to go home'
Chaos as Manhattan building explodes
Pope Francis meets his 'mini-me'
Celebrity deaths in 2014