Coal Country Toxic Chemical Spills: Not If, But When

The Fiscal Times

Sometimes it can be nearly as dangerous to live near a coal mine as it is to work in one. 

Last week’s chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia’s Elk River virtually shut down the city and left 300,000 residents and thousands of businesses without clean drinking water. It’s is a rueful reminder of a harsh reality in Appalachian coal country.

The foaming agent that escaped from a 40,000-gallon Freedom Industries storage tank directly into the Charleston area’s sole water supply is used to help separate rock particles from ground up coal. The left-over chemicals and sludge are then piped to nearby slurry ponds for storage and reuse.

Related: West Virginia chemical spill leaves 300,000 without tap water

Those chemical and waste water impoundments – both natural and man-made – are ticking environmental and economic time bombs that for decades have posed threats to resident of mining communities throughout West Virginia, Kentucky and many other major coal mining states.

Much has been made of the nation’s deteriorating highways and bridges, but the infrastructure crisis plaguing the mining and related chemical industry at times has reached nightmarish proportions. 

The worst example dates back to February 26, 1972, when three dams containing a witches’ brew of coal slurry and water in Logan County, W.Va., failed in rapid succession. A startling 125 people were killed, 1,121 others were injured, 17 communities were wiped out and over 4,000 were left homeless after 130 million gallons of sludge and toxic water were released into the Buffalo Creek flood plain.  Despite evidence of negligence, the Pittston Coal Company -- the owner of the dams -- called the tragedy an “act of God.” 

But state investigators concluded the company had shown a “callous indifference” to public safety,” and had ignored years of warnings from area residents.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Jack Spadaro, an engineer and veteran coal mining safety consultant who took part in a state investigation of the disaster that led to some reforms. “It was the most devastating thing I’ve ever seen.”

In October 2000, about 300 million gallons of fine coal refuse and water escaped from a 68-acre impounding area owned by Martin County Coal Corporation in eastern Kentucky. The deluge of coal sludge – larger in quantity than the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- flooded nearby mines, damaged thousands of homes and killed all aquatic life along 200 miles of stream, all the way to the Ohio River.

Then in 2002, a 900-foot high, 2,000-foot long valley fill near a mountain-top coal production site in Lyburn, W.Va., failed and slid into a sediment pond at the toe of the fill. The accident generated a tidal wave of toxic water and sediment that destroyed nearby homes and cars.

Related: Will Obama Regulations Kill the Coal Industry?

These massive slurry impoundments are vital to the mining industry for cleaning and separating coal from rock and other debris. Mining companies have used naturally occurring basins to construct impoundments whenever possible, according to studies, but more often have built upon an embankment at the mouth of a river or watershed near populated areas.

Catastrophic accidents like the one in 1972 forced major reforms and regulations that led to improved construction and maintenance practices within the industry, although critics complain of backsliding by regulators and inspectors in recent years. Yet there are still many old-style impoundments remaining that are highly susceptible to accidents because of poor construction and weak walls.

Today, there are 596 coal slurry impoundments operating in 21 states, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The largest number of those facilities -- 114 -- is located in West Virginia.

A 2011 study by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement cited the mounting risk for communities downriver of these massive embankments or ponds, according to the Washington Post.  Tests of the compaction or density of the walls of these impoundments showed flaws at all seven sites surveyed in West Virginia. Only 16 of 73 field tests conducted in a handful of states met the government structural safety standards, according to the report.

“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 thicknesses, and consultants recording passing test results when visual observations . . . indicate the material may not be adequately compacted.” the OSM report stated.

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Spadaro, an engineering consultant and former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, said that the analysis underscores the inherent problem in how mining companies store the waste from their operations. “It’s a very weak material and when it’s wet, it’s even weaker.”

“What it shows is not only is the state of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection not enforcing the standards, but the federal Office of Surface Mining is covering up the true nature of this threat,” he said.

Rob Goodwin, project manager for Coal River Mountain Watch, a non-profit West Virginia group that has spent years battling mountain top removal and other destructive and risky coal mining practices, said on Monday that the Charleston chemical spill is emblematic of a larger threat to the well-being of residents of Coal Country.

In the case of Charleston, the state capital, he said, a chemical company was permitted to operate a large storage facility and coal slurry impoundment without adequate regulations and safeguards near a water treatment plant that serves a sprawling nine-county region. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people are living near coal slurry impoundments and ponds that are prone to cracks and leaks that can pollute rivers and ground water.

“The great number of chemical plants, coal processing plants, coal slurry impoundments, underground mines, and  mountain top removal mines that  now exist in all of the watersheds in the southern part of West Virginia have really limited the available locations of reliable drinking water,” Goodwin said in an interview with the Fiscal Times today.

“And there absolutely is a physical risk [to living near these facilities] and lots of questions about proper enforcement, proper monitoring and proper construction practices of the dams that will not go away,” he added.

Related: High Price of Keeping the Water ‘On’

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported Sunday that a team of experts from the United States Chemical Safety Board asked the state three years ago to create a new program to prevent accidents and releases in the Kanawha Valley, known as Chemical Valley.

That came after investigation of the August 2008 explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Bayer Crop-Science plan in Institute, W.Va. No program was ever produced.

Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said yesterday that the chemical spill may “raise the question of the adequacy of the knowledge and regulations of these facilities on the properties of chemical companies.” But he stressed, “This was a leak at a chemical facility, not a coal facility.”

“Now that’s not to say there shouldn’t be heightened vigilance whenever chemicals are used,” he added. “I think that makes common sense. But I think it’s irrational to seize upon one incident and indict any industry for it. What energy industry is without its accidents and problems?”

In Charleston, federal authorities are investigating how the foaming agent – known as 4-methylcyclohecxane methanol – escaped the plant and seeped into the Elk River last Thursday. Officials said that while the chemical isn’t deadly, area residents shouldn’t even wash their clothes in affected water, because the compound can cause symptoms ranging from skin irritation and rashes to vomiting and diarrhea.

The crisis appeared to be subsiding on Monday after hundreds of thousands of people skipped showers and brushed their teeth with bottled water for the past five days. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced that a "do not use" order is being lifted in certain zones, and that all residents would soon have access again to safe tap water.

West Virginia American Water said it has been flushing the 1,700 miles of pipes affected by Thursday's chemical spill, and that untainted water is beginning to flow in the Charleston area. High-density, high-need areas that include hospitals and nursing homes are getting water first.

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