MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A draft report kept under wraps since 2011 shows federal engineers are concerned about construction techniques, quality-control procedures and possible compaction problems at seven West Virginia coal slurry dams subjected to surprise inspections.
The citizens' group Sludge Safety Project obtained a one-page summary of the report that the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation has refused to release under the Freedom of Information Act. Some residents of the coalfields have long worried that massive impoundments were improperly built and could fail, unleashing a destructive and potentially fatal flood of sludge and black water.
"To date,'' however, "OSM has not found any indication that any coal slurry impoundment is in imminent danger of failure,'' spokesman Chris Holmes said. "Had it done so, OSM would have taken action immediately.''
Holmes said the report is a draft that's far from completion, and more testing and data analysis are needed.
"The bottom line is this: Good science and engineering takes time and effort to complete,'' he said, "and that is what OSM is committed to doing.''
A report the agency issued in January on the potential for bottom failures of slurry impoundments took 10 years to complete. This 20-page report was not finalized because Charleston Field Office director Roger Calhoun had concerns about incomplete and unverified data, Holmes said.
This is the first time a federal agency has studied whether the material inside coal slurry ponds is properly drying and compacting, even though some West Virginia impoundments are 30-40 years old.
Rob Goodwin, who monitors impoundments for the Sludge Safety Project and Coal River Mountain Watch, said the review is long overdue. He said the report summary shows that state and federal regulators must stop accepting self-reported data from coal companies and conduct their own independent, comprehensive examinations.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection didn't immediately comment.
Regulators should also impose a moratorium on the expansion of existing impoundments, Goodwin said, especially the Brushy Fork dam built by the former Massey Energy Co. near Whitesville.
Federal regulators recently approved plans by the current owner, Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, to expand what is already one of the nation's biggest coal slurry impoundments to a height taller than the Hoover Dam. The plan would increase the volume of waste to 8.5 billion gallons.
"Citizens have worried about construction methods and impoundment stability for more than a decade,'' Goodwin said, "yet state and federal agencies have insisted they're safe and meet legal requirements.''
The problem, he said, is those determinations rely on the companies to provide "honest and accurate data.''
Neighbors worry about Brushy Fork because the engineer long responsible for the impoundment was also involved in illegal ventilation plans at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine, where an April 2010 explosion killed 29 men.