The Martin County incident prompted renewed interest from regulators and some lawmakers. A congressionally mandated study by the National Academy of Sciences called for tougher inspections and new regulations, including specific language to govern minimum rock or earth barriers between impoundment basins and adjacent underground mines.
Under the George W. Bush administration, MSHA and the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in 2003 rejected the academy's recommendation for those new rules.
But OSM has quietly continued to examine coal-waste impoundments, producing several reports over the last few years pointing out problems with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection's enforcement of coal-dam rules.
In one little-noticed study, published in the journal Environmental and Engineering Geosciences, OSM engineers warned about potential recurrences of what happened at Martin County.
"We are not confident that all or even the majority of existing impoundments (yet under construction or reclaimed} would avoid flows of fine refuse through breakthroughs into underground mines," said the study, published in August 2010.
OSM engineers cautioned "there is significant uncertainty" about the strength of consolidated fine-coal refuse, and concerns that water levels within impoundments can liquefy coal-waste dams "and the sense that at least some impoundments are not constructed to effectively drain water from the material."
After Buffalo Creek, investigation reports noted there was lots of evidence prior to the disaster that warned of what eventually happened, including the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults in October 1966, when a coal-waste dump collapsed into homes and a school in Aberfan, Wales. In West Virginia, coalfield citizens have had some recent successes in their campaigns related to coal-slurry impoundments.
Two years ago, private donations and government funding came together to launch construction of new elementary school in Raleigh County, so that students at Marsh Fork Elementary would be moved away from a nearby Massey Energy processing plant and slurry impoundment.
Last year, OSM officials declined to overrule a DEP decision concerning safety at another former Massey impoundment also in Raleigh County. But repeated protests from citizens about the Brush Fork dam also prompted a new OSM study that's looking at whether current test methods adequately gauge compaction of coal waste used in dam construction.
Meanwhile, one other recommendation from the National Academy's 2001 report remains mostly ignored: The notion of exploring ways to eliminate the need for huge coal-waste impoundments altogether.
"The opportunities for reducing slurry volume include mining alternatives and coal-processing alternatives," the study said. "The committee recommends that the total system of mining, preparation, transportation, and utilization of coal and the associated environmental and economic issues be studies in a comprehensive manner to identify the appropriate technologies for each component that will eliminate or reduce the need for slurry impoundments while optimizing the performance objectives of the system."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.