Leaked OSM study outlines slurry dam concerns
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Two years ago, federal mining engineers found potentially serious safety concerns at seven slurry impoundments scattered across West Virginia's southern coalfields.
But the government has yet to finalize a report on the matter, and on Thursday refused to make public detailed findings from a draft prepared in 2011.
U.S. Office of Surface Mining officials refused to release the complete data, even after local citizen groups made public a leaked, one-page summary that described poor construction techniques, lax quality control for safety testing, and inadequate compaction of embankment materials.
"There are a lot of things there that the public isn't being told," said former miner Joe Stanley, an activist who has been monitoring impoundment issues. Stanley was among about a dozen citizens who gathered Thursday morning outside OSM's field office in downtown Charleston to urge agency officials to make public the details.
OSM officials refused the request, saying they are working with the state Department of Environmental Protection on additional testing to try to verify the original results.
DEP officials said their additional testing, conducted in January, February, July and August 2012 and again this month, found no violations or safety concerns. But like OSM, DEP refused to release data from its testing.
The issue, simmering behind the scenes for months, burst into public view Wednesday night, with the release -- initially in a Washington Post report -- of the one-page summary of the OSM report drafted in 2011, when federal officials had initially planned to make public the entire study.
The OSM report summary outlined the findings of field tests OSM engineers performed in June and July 2011 to measure the density of coal slurry used to build a sampling of the roughly 120 coal-waste dams currently regulated by the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation. OSM had previously rejected citizen group and Charleston Gazette public records requests for the study results.
Only 16 of the 73 tests recorded passing results, with failed density measurements found at each of the seven sites, according to the summary.
"Results of the testing tend to indicate that the coarse refuse is not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved specifications," the OSM summary said.
The density tests help engineers measure whether wet coal slurry has been adequately dried and compacted. Without adequate compaction, voids would remain that might allow for internal erosion, which was one of the causes of the 1972 coal-dam failure that killed 125 people in Buffalo Creek, Logan County.
"It's a pretty good indication there's a problem," said Jack Spadaro, a former federal inspector who investigated Buffalo Creek. "If you don't get the compaction, then you don't get the strength in the structure."
Officials from the West Virginia Coal Association did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the OSM study.
When mine operators process coal for market, they generate huge amounts of waste rock and particles mixed with water. They use larger chunks of this refuse to build dams, behind which they pump liquid "slurry wastes" for disposal.
While regulators and industry officials say these facilities are safe, coalfield residents have lived in fear of coal-slurry dams since Buffalo Creek, a disaster that prompted major reforms and led to passage of the 1977 federal strip-mining law.
Measures of how well slurry used for embankment construction compacts are one of the factors that goes into calculating whether such dams are stable and safe. Mine operators or their consultants estimate the expected compaction of the construction material when they apply for permits from DEP.
West Virginia law does not require mine operators to perform periodic compaction testing, but DEP typically includes a mandate for such tests -- about once a week -- as a condition of permit approval.
But over the years, federal and state agencies have generally not performed any spot-checks to confirm that company compaction tests are properly done or ensure companies are accurately reporting the results.
"Much like the Clean Water Act program, the dam program has been self-verification and self-reporting by industry," said Tom Clarke, director of the DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation.
OSM engineers, though, "became concerned that embankment construction quality control may be inconsistent," according to the report summary.
Federal agency engineers, "observed cases of material being placed under wet conditions, excessive lift thicknesses, and consultants recording passing test results when visual observations (pumping and rutting) indicate the material may not be adequately compacted."
Among other things, OSM officials questioned why the mining industry most frequently uses bulldozers to compact dam construction material, when dozers are not designed for that purpose and other equipment could be more effective.
"I'm proud we've gone this far," said Roger Calhoun, director of OSM's Charleston field office. "We're on the cutting edge with these tests. The citizens asked for this. They said, "don't trust the companies, check them.'"
But after OSM completed its testing and the results were in, DEP officials complained about the federal agency's methods.
Jim Pierce, a DEP dam safety engineer, said Thursday that OSM investigators tested an upper layer of coal refuse that had not had a chance to compact, and wrongly averaged results from multiple tests at the same impoundment.
DEP hired its own consultant to perform more tests. Those tests are done, and the two agencies are reviewing the results and discussing the matter further with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, which also regulates coal-slurry impoundments.
There is no timeline for completing the work, said DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1702.