CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia regulators have not adequately examined the risks that coal-slurry impoundments across the state could break into adjacent underground mine workings and cause a disaster like the one more than a decade ago in Martin County, Ky., federal investigators said in a report released Thursday.
U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement engineers outlined weaknesses in safety reviews discovered in a four-year examination of practices at the state Department of Environmental Protection.
OSM said that state officials should review more closely 132 impoundments across the state's coalfields, and force mine operators to provide more concrete proof that the "breakthrough potential" at their impoundments has been controlled.
"What we've said is, 'Look again'," said Roger Calhoun, director of OSM's field office in Charleston.
Among the DEP lapses identified by the federal agency:
Officials from OSM and DEP both emphasized that the federal review found no evidence of an "imminent threat" of a breakthrough, but the study examined only 15 of the industry's existing 132 slurry impoundments. OSM said it plans similar studies in six other states: Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia.
DEP issued a statement confirming that it had agree to take actions to respond to the OSM review as part of the state's "continued effort to use the most conservative approach to ensure the safety [of] all dam control structures under our jurisdiction." DEP's actions are expected to take about three years to complete.
When mine operators process coal for market, they generate huge amounts of waste rock and coal particles mixed with water, which they usually dispose of in giant impoundments. Larger chunks of refuse are used to build dams, and liquid "slurry" waste is pumped into the basins.
While regulators and industry officials say these facilities are safe, coalfield residents have lived in fear of coal-slurry dams since February 1972, when the collapse of a series of dams on Buffalo Creek in Logan County killed 125 people.
After Buffalo Creek, mining regulators focused mostly on making sure the dam structures themselves at coal-waste impoundments were safe.