The Coal Impoundment Location & Information System says the dam has a maximum capacity of about 505 million gallons of soupy gray slurry, or the equivalent of about 765 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Slurry is a byproduct of washing coal to help it burn more cleanly. Companies have disposed of the dirty water and solids in various ways over the years, injecting it into abandoned mines, damming it in huge ponds.
Labor officials want U.S. District Judge John Preston Bailey to immediately halt use of the EMCI impoundment and to limit access only to certified inspectors. They also seek an order demanding that EMCI pay nearly $13,000 in long-overdue fines and an order that a professional certification be done within 30 days of the preliminary injunction.
Federal officials say impoundment failures are a major threat to people and property, pointing to the 1972 collapse of a dam in Logan County. A 30-foot wave of sludge roared down Buffalo Creek hollow, killing 125 people, injuring 1,200 and leaving more than 4,000 homeless.
More recently, in October 2000, the bottom of an impoundment in Martin County, Ky., burst into an abandoned underground mine and through the mountain, flooding the watershed with black waste.
"While no one was injured," Ihlenfeld notes, "it has been called the worst environmental disaster since the Exxon Valdez oil spill."
In all, there are 596 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states. West Virginia has 114, more than any other state.
Though they seldom fail, one man died in an embankment failure last fall. On Nov. 30, a section of embankment at the massive Robinson Run prep plant impoundment near Lumberport collapsed, sucking a bulldozer and two pickups into the muck. Two other men survived, but the body of dozer drive Markel Coon was recovered two weeks later.
Consol was working to raise the elevation of the impoundment when the accident happened, but the company and federal investigators have declined to speculate on what caused the failure.
The Robinson Run impoundment is massive in comparison with the EMCI dam, encompassing about 78 acres and holding about 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, or the equivalent of more than 2,500 Olympic-sized pools.