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Citizens pressure OSM on slurry dam safety

Read more on Coal Tattoo

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Coalfield residents and activists on Tuesday pressured federal regulators to take tough action in response to concerns over the safety of a huge coal-slurry impoundment in Raleigh County.

Coal River Mountain Watch supporters gathered outside the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's Charleston office for a brief press conference and then met with Roger Calhoun, OSM's top official in West Virginia.

The event was timed to call attention to an ongoing review by OSM of citizen complaints that pressure readings from inside part of the impoundment's dam indicate a stability problem that hasn't been addressed by the state or the company.

"This has been an ongoing, flagrant problem that makes this dam dangerous," said Joe Stanley, a former coal miner and activist who has been urging federal officials to take a closer look at the site for nearly three years.

Stanley said he feared that a major accident at Brushy Fork would "make Buffalo Creek look like a walk in the park," referring to the February 1972 collapse of a Pittston slurry dam that killed 125 people in Logan County.

The Brushy Fork site, located five miles upstream of Whitesville, is among the largest coal-slurry waste impoundments in the coalfields and has been the subject of repeated citizen concerns for more than a decade.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection insist the facility is safe, and Calhoun said Tuesday that OSM investigators have not come up with any proof showing the state's assessment is wrong.

Alpha Natural Resources acquired the 750-foot-tall dam and an impoundment with a capacity of roughly 8 billion gallons last month as part of Alpha's buyout of Massey Energy.

Alpha officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday, but told the Associated Press last week they are confident the facility is safe.

Earlier this year, in response to complaints from Stanley, OSM issued an enforcement notice to give the state DEP time to explain whether the dam showed any signs of interior pressures that would indicate wet refuse used to expand the dam was making it unstable.

Initially, DEP officials in late May issued an order in which they asked the company to conduct new testing to determine if there was a problem.

But at a meeting last week, company officials told DEP and OSM that they already had some new data that would support their contention that the dam was safe. Company officials, though, did not bring the data to the meeting, and OSM extended the deadline until early August for the company to provide the data and for federal officials to review the matter.

DEP mining officials said Tuesday that their examination so far had found what they called "slightly elevated pressures" on monitors meant to keep track of whether liquid wastes were filling up voids between solid wastes, potentially causing dam stability problems.

Harold Ward of the DEP's Division of Mining and Reclamation, said his agency plans to closely examine the additional data from the company. "We don't want to leave anything uncovered," Ward said.

Calhoun said he's also still reviewing the matter, and didn't want to publicly discuss what his agency has found so far until the investigation is completed.

So far, though, OSM's review has prompted DEP to add requirements into a separate permit for Alpha's nearby Bee Tree Surface Mine to limit vibrations any blasting there causes at the Brushy Fork site. DEP had previously argued such limits weren't needed.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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