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DEP, legislators await coal slurry health report

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.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler has invited representatives of the West Virginia Coal Association and the Sludge Safety Project to a hearing in Charleston on Tuesday. Also set to appear is Virginia Tech professor Roe-Han Yoon, who will discuss alternatives to injecting slurry.

Kessler said his committee has met privately for months with industry and environmentalists, and they are finding common ground. Coal companies realize they may be able to minimize disposal costs, break even or perhaps make money, he said, while also reducing backlash.

Still, legislators may still have to force change, he said.

"If it requires a kick in the pants to get them moving -- an incentive or whatever -- we may have to do that,'' said Kessler, D-Marshall.

Huffman said he doesn't have the power to change the rules but sees alternative disposal methods as "something we very seriously need to consider.''

"I think the rational, responsible companies are looking at this, and they're understanding they need to do something different,'' he said.

Huffman acknowledged DEP still can't answer many questions raised more than a year ago. Staff are still entering data about the chemical composition of slurry and the volumes pumped into the earth, relying on reports from the coal operators themselves.

"Everybody has made an assumption that just because slurry is nasty and we're putting it underground and it's near where people live ... it should be obvious that it's causing problems,'' he said. "And we have not made that kind of determination based on the data we have.''

However, he acknowledged, plenty of questions linger.

"There are still a lot of holes in our data,'' he said, "and that's what we're trying to do, plug our data holes.''

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Online:

WVU research data: http://www.coalslurry.net/

Sludge Safety Project:  http://www.sludgesafety.org/coal(underscore)slurry(underscore)inj.ht ml

DEP: http://www.dep.wv.gov/Pages/default.aspx

 


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