At Martin County, the floor fell out of Massey Energy's Big Branch Impoundment in October 2000. More than 300 million gallons of slurry - 28 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill - poured into adjacent underground mines. From there, the slurry flowed out into two local streams, and into the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, along the West Virginia-Kentucky border. Workers and residents escaped injury. But lawns were buried up to 7 feet deep, and all of the fish in two streams were killed. Drinking water supplies were fouled along more than 60 miles of the Big Sandy.
OSM released the 184-page impoundment breakthrough report during a Thursday afternoon press conference, an unusual move for an agency that issues dozens of reviews of state agency practices without generally seeking media coverage of them.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said he questioned the need for a press conference. But Kathy Cosco, the state agency's communications director, and senior engineer Jim Pierce spoke at the OSM event, offering a much more reserved tone than West Virginia regulators have sounded in most of their dealings with the Obama administration over mining issues in the last four years.
The West Virginia Coal Association, though, blasted OSM for the report and for the way it was made public.
"The agency never requested any information from the industry that may have satisfied their concerns, nor did they contact the industry to make them aware of the pending release of these reports or today's media event," association vice president Jason Bostic said in a statement. "Sensationalism has never advanced meaningful dialogue and progress with respect to developing a path forward."
Pierce said that state officials take the safety of coal-slurry dams very seriously, and have worked hard - with a major 2001 order and a new set of rules in 2003 -- since Martin County to address concerns about breakthroughs.
"West Virginia hasn't been sitting idly by doing nothing," Pierce said.
But some of the issues raised by the new OSM report were also brought up in previous federal reviews released in 2005 and 2008, and the latest OSM document in places paints a picture of inaction by DEP.
For example, OSM highlighted one incident in which an impoundment operator continued to dump slurry at a site that DEP had ordered closed because of concerns about a breakthrough. "The operator's attempts to convert the facility were unsuccessful, but in the meantime 10 years have elapsed with 'occasional' use without clear follow-up on the state's order to close the facility," OSM said.
Among other problems, OSM officials focused on what they called "an over-reliance on mine maps" that do not provide "sufficient evidence that mining has not occurred" on areas close to coal-slurry impoundment basins.
In a statement, DEP said that it now plans to require mine operators to "provide additional written documentation evaluating and detailing" the extent of underground mining near impoundments."
But during the OSM press conference, Pierce said that DEP may not always require mine operators to provide additional proof -- through underground drilling or other testing -- and may sometimes continue to rely on mine maps.
"One size does not fit all," Pierce said. "It's going to be site-specific."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.