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W.Va. regulators to drain dangerous slurry dam

Vicki Smith, Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- West Virginia regulators said Wednesday they recently revoked the permit for a potentially dangerous Barbour County coal slurry dam that the U.S. Department of Labor has asked a federal judge to shut down.

The North Hollow dam in Barbour County is no longer operating, and the state Department of Environmental Protection is working to hire an engineering firm to assess the impoundment and develop a de-watering plan, said spokeswoman Kathy Cosco.

The impoundment's owner, Dominick LaRosa of Potomac, Md., has for two months failed to answer a February complaint the Labor Department filed over the situation in U.S. District Court.

Cosco said the engineering firm should be chosen by next week. It will map the entire permit area and develop guidelines for cleaning up the sediment-control pond.

It's unclear how much slurry is in the impoundment, Cosco said. Determining that is part of the engineers' task.

"They will give us measurements and tell us exactly what we're dealing with," she said.

Other reclamation activities are planned, and Cosco said all the work should be finished within a few months.

Coal slurry is the waste produced when coal is washed to make it burn more cleanly. Appalachian coal companies have disposed of soupy water, silt and solids in various ways over the years, injecting it into abandoned mines, damming it in huge ponds and, less commonly, disposing of it with a costly dry filter-press process.

The Century 101 mine the North Hollow impoundment had served is no longer producing coal, but the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has labeled the dam "high hazard," meaning a failure would likely cause fatalities.

Cosco said the DEP sees no imminent danger to people below the site, so it's selecting a firm through the state's normal purchasing process rather than using emergency procedures.

U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey earlier this week declared LaRosa and his Energy Marketing Co. Inc. in default for failing to answer the Labor Department's complaint within 60 days.

The complaint says LaRosa and the company are flouting federal law, ignoring violations and fines, and putting the public at risk. MSHA says the impoundment near Century hasn't been certified by a professional engineer for two years.

LaRosa did not immediately return messages left at his home, and it's unclear whether he has an attorney.

The Labor Department's lead attorney referred questions about the case Wednesday to MSHA, which did not immediately comment.

The complaint, however, also asks the judge to order LaRosa and his company to pay nearly $13,000 in long-overdue fines and to have a professional certification done within 30 days of the order.

MSHA says it was not certified for structural integrity as required by law in either 2011 or 2012. Federal records also show Energy Marketing has been cited for problems about two dozen times.