CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As West Virginia environmental regulators plan more steps in response to last month's coal-cleaning chemical leak into the Elk River and a coal-slurry spill last week, state inspectors were on the scene Wednesday of another mining-waste accident.
Department of Environmental Protection inspectors reported a spill of polluted water from a former McDowell County slurry impoundment that had been reopened by a company re-mining the site for leftover bits of coal.
DEP officials said runoff from melting snow overran the site's sediment control ponds, sending "blackwater" running into an adjacent creek.
The incident occurred at the Antaeus Gary impoundment site, formerly owned by U.S. Steel Mining, at Gary. The facility had been abandoned, and the impoundment reclaimed by the DEP, following a major accident in May 2002.
Earlier in the day, DEP officials had been discussing their continued response to the Jan. 9 chemical leak at Freedom Industries in Charleston and to last week's coal-slurry spill at a Patriot Coal processing site in Eastern Kanawha County.
In an interview, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said he's trying to focus his agency and the industries it regulates on preventing such spills from happening in the first place, rather than just simply responding afterward.
"It's easy to get trapped into accepting that, whether it's the companies or the regulators or even the community," Huffman said, "but you don't protect the environment by reacting after the fact."
After a series of blackwater spills from 2001 to 2003, two reports by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement recommended that the DEP take more steps to prevent such incidents. The DEP rejected the OSM recommendation, saying in 2009 that the number of coal-waste spills was on the decline.
But among other things, OSM officials reported that they found it hard, using DEP inspection reports and databases, to definitively count the number of blackwater spills. Huffman said Wednesday he believes the number of spills continues to decline, but that he didn't know if the DEP had fixed the data problems outlined by the OSM.
In a news release issued Wednesday, the DEP said water sampling conducted on the Kanawha River on Feb. 13 -- two days after the Patriot slurry spill -- showed "all parameters at acceptable levels for both warm-water fisheries and public water supplies."
Still, a review of the water-sampling results showed that levels of some pollutants -- conductivity, sulfates and chlorides, for example -- remained elevated downstream from where Fields Creek enters the Kanawha, compared to upstream sampling.
"They are elevated, but they are within the limits," said Harold Ward, acting director of the DEP's Division of Mining and Reclamation.
Other water-sampling results from the day of the spill or the day after had not been made public by the DEP as of Wednesday evening, and Ward acknowledged that six miles of Fields Creek -- the stream where the slurry spill actually occurred -- were seriously damaged by the slurry.
"Obviously, it's heavily impacted, and the cleanup there will be extensive," Ward said.
Huffman noted that DEP officials have been working with Patriot Coal on a plan for the company to put in place additional measures to prevent a recurrence of the slurry spill at its Kanawha Eagle operation on Fields Creek near Winifrede.
Among the additional measures are two external flow meters designed to alert preparation plant operators of problems, remote cameras on the line carrying slurry from the plant to the disposal site, and the addition of secondary containment structures for the entire slurry transportation line.
"It's kind of a foreshadowing of the way we need to go to the next level," Huffman said. "If we're going to minimize slurry spills, we have to go farther."