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Coal-slurry protesters highlight concerns

By Staff, wire reports
Chris Dorst
Emergency workers try to free David Baghdadi of Rock Creek from a barrel of water and coal slurry he had fastened himself to outside the Governor's Mansion to draw attention to concerns about the safety of coal slurry impoundments.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Environmental activists on Wednesday launched separate protests at the Governor's Mansion and at a Raleigh County mining operation to bring attention to growing concerns about the safety of coal-slurry impoundments in West Virginia.

In Charleston, David Baghdadi of Rock Creek locked himself to a barrel of dirty water in front of the Governor's Mansion. Charleston firefighters spent several hours trying to cut him free. He was taken to the hospital to try to remove his arm from the pipe.

Authorities charged Baghdadi with trespassing and obstruction. Kanawha County Magistrate Julie Yeager set bail at $5,000 and told Baghdadi not to come onto Statehouse grounds as part of his release.

Earlier Wednesday, two activists paddled onto a slurry impoundment and displayed banners at an Alpha Natural Resources impoundment in Raleigh County. The two activists were cited for trespassing, protest organizers said.

The group Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival, or RAMPS, which publicized the protests, said the activists were "calling attention to the failure of the state government to protect its citizens from the abuses of the coal industry and the threats posed by coal-slurry disposal."

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.

In a statement, RAMPS cited two U.S. Office of Surface Mining reports issued this year that criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection's handling of coal slurry issues.

One report found that DEP had not adequately examined the risks that coal slurry impoundments could break into adjacent underground mine workings and cause a disaster like the one more than a decade ago in Martin County, Ky.

DEP officials said they were taking actions to respond to OSM's concerns.

The second report, leaked to the media in summary form, described poor construction techniques, lax quality control for safety testing, and inadequate compaction of embankment materials at impoundments in West Virginia.

OSM has said those results are not final, and the DEP has disputed the findings contained in the leaked summary.

Last November, a United Mine Workers member, dozer operator Markel Koon, 58, of Shinnston, was killed when he was swept into a CONSOL Energy impoundment when part of a dike under construction collapsed.

The state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training cited the company, saying that the embankment "was not constructed or maintained in a manner to ensure safe operation of mobile equipment."

Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, criticized the protesters.

"This was the wrong way to do things, and as a result, we've had maybe a dozen Charleston firefighters on campus [at the Governor's Mansion] and at least two trucks that hopefully were not needed elsewhere in this city," Messina said. "It's definitely a public safety concern."

The mansion sits on Statehouse grounds and there is no security gate restricting public access to it. Messina said there have been discussions in the past about enhancing security on the Capitol Complex campus and that those conversations are "ongoing."


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