MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -- A West Virginia University study on whether the underground injection of coal slurry is harmful to human health could be presented to legislators in July, and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman is among those eager to see it.
Huffman said he expects the report to conclude that coal slurry contains chemicals people shouldn't drink. What he wants to know is whether WVU researchers have done what his agency could not -- establish the pathway from a sealed underground mine to human contact.
"If you make a determination as a health department that somebody is sick as a result of underground injection, you have to have some basic understanding of how the connection was made,'' Huffman said. "I'm interested in knowing how that link will be established.''
Slurry is the wastewater produced when coal is washed to help it burn more efficiently.
For decades, coal companies in Appalachia have injected slurry into worked-out underground mines as a cheap alternative to building dams or filtration and drying systems. In theory, solids settle to the bottom of pools inside sealed mine voids, and all the waste stays put, with little risk to groundwater below.
The industry defends the practice as safe. But critics say the earth continues to shift and crack long after mining has ended, whether through natural settling or activity such as nearby blasting. They say that lets slurry migrate.
Huffman said the DEP has found no evidence of migration in West Virginia, but hundreds of southern coalfields residents argue otherwise in pending lawsuits.
Principal investigator Alan Ducatman says the report will address both the composition of slurry and its possible pathways, but he would not offer details. The report is currently being peer-reviewed for completion.
Ducatman said his team finished its work within a year of its charge, and he's hopeful the report will be ready by legislative interim meetings in July.
"It is a hope,'' he said, "but it is not a certainty.''
Barbara Taylor, director of the Office of Environmental Health Services, said her agency has not yet read the 180-page draft report or offered feedback because some key components -- conclusions and recommendations -- are not included.
"We're really interested in seeing what will be in those sections,'' she said.
It's been more than a year since the DEP imposed a moratorium on new coal slurry injection sites and about nine months since the agency said it was planning a more detailed investigation of slurry and groundwater in Boone County.
The moratorium is still in place, with only 12 active injection sites, Huffman said. The contract for research into what happened in the towns of Prenter and Seth, meanwhile, is close to being awarded.
Residents of Prenter and Seth are suing eight coal companies they believe poisoned their wells by pumping coal slurry into old underground mines.
A legislative subcommittee is also forging ahead, set to hold the first of several public hearings on coal slurry and alternatives to underground injection.