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40 years after Buffalo Creek, coal-dam questions remain

Read previous Gazette stories about Buffalo Creek CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Forty years ago Sunday morning, a trio of coal-waste dams at a Pittston Coal operation on Buffalo Creek in Logan County collapsed. 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.

A citizens' commission report called Buffalo Creek "a man-made disaster." A governor's task force concluded, "It was, in the truest sense, the most destructive flood in West Virginia history."

Today, hundreds of coal-waste dams still loom over Appalachian communities. Coalfield residents often worry it could all happen again.

Industry officials and most regulators say it won't. They point to tougher laws, stronger engineering standards and better construction practices put in place after the Buffalo Creek Disaster.

Other experts acknowledge serious improvements over the last four decades. Buffalo Creek spurred Congress to pass the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Lawmakers also added new dam-safety duties to the work of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration when they rewrote coal-mine safety rules.

But coal-slurry impoundments remain a constant target for citizen concerns, and for the environmental community's growing efforts to crack down on the coal industry generally and mountaintop removal specifically. And some experts say there are reasons to be worried.

"We've come a long way since Buffalo Creek," said longtime mine inspector Jack Spadaro, who investigated the disaster for a special gubernatorial commission.

"We're better off than we were," said Spadaro, who now works as an engineering consultant for coalfield residents, workers and their lawyers. "But there are still very serious concerns."

Spadaro and other experts point to problems with coal-slurry leaking from impoundments into drinking water supplies, and to the potential for such leakage to weaken impoundment basins, prompting a disastrous "breakthrough" into nearby underground mines.

That's just what happened in October 2000 in Martin County, Ky. The floor fell out of Massey Energy's Big Branch Impoundment, and more than 300 million gallons of slurry -- 28 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill -- poured into an adjacent underground mine. From there, the slurry flowed out into two local streams and into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, along the West Virginia-Kentucky border.

Workers and residents escaped injury. But lawns were buried up to 7 feet deep, and all of the fish in two streams were killed. Drinking water supplies were fouled along more than 60 miles of the Big Sandy.

The Martin County incident prompted renewed interest from regulators and some lawmakers. A congressionally mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences called for tougher inspections and new regulations, including specific language to govern minimum rock or earth barriers between impoundment basins and adjacent underground mines.

Under the George W. Bush administration, MSHA and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in 2003 rejected the academy's recommendation for those new rules.

But OSM has quietly continued to examine coal-waste impoundments, producing several reports over the last few years pointing out problems with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's enforcement of coal-dam rules.

In one little-noticed study, published in the journal Environmental and Engineering Geosciences, OSM engineers warned about potential recurrences of what happened at Martin County.

"We are not confident that all or even the majority of existing impoundments (yet under construction or reclaimed} would avoid flows of fine refuse through breakthroughs into underground mines," said the study, published in August 2010.

OSM engineers cautioned "there is significant uncertainty" about the strength of consolidated fine-coal refuse, and concerns that water levels within impoundments can liquefy coal-waste dams "and the sense that at least some impoundments are not constructed to effectively drain water from the material."

After Buffalo Creek, investigation reports noted there was lots of evidence prior to the disaster that warned of what eventually happened, including the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults in October 1966, when a coal-waste dump collapsed into homes and a school in Aberfan, Wales. In West Virginia, coalfield citizens have had some recent successes in their campaigns related to coal-slurry impoundments.

Two years ago, private donations and government funding came together to launch construction of new elementary school in Raleigh County, so that students at Marsh Fork Elementary would be moved away from a nearby Massey Energy processing plant and slurry impoundment.

Last year, OSM officials declined to overrule a DEP decision concerning safety at another former Massey impoundment also in Raleigh County. But repeated protests from citizens about the Brush Fork dam also prompted a new OSM study that's looking at whether current test methods adequately gauge compaction of coal waste used in dam construction.

Meanwhile, one other recommendation from the National Academy's 2001 report remains mostly ignored: The notion of exploring ways to eliminate the need for huge coal-waste impoundments altogether.

"The opportunities for reducing slurry volume include mining alternatives and coal-processing alternatives," the study said. "The committee recommends that the total system of mining, preparation, transportation, and utilization of coal and the associated environmental and economic issues be studies in a comprehensive manner to identify the appropriate technologies for each component that will eliminate or reduce the need for slurry impoundments while optimizing the performance objectives of the system."

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


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