LAWRENCE PIERCE photos/Sunday Gazette-Mail
Hundreds of huge coal-waste dams loom over coalfield communities across West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. This one is at Eastern Associated Coal Corp.'s Rock Lick preparation plant near Barrett in Boone County. It has a concrete spillway down the left side to drain excess water.
By Ken Ward Jr.
SHARPLES - At first glance from the valley floor, it looks like any other Logan County hill.
Drive up muddy haul roads to the ridgetop, and you see it's really a towering mountain of black coal refuse, a dam made of waste from Ashland Coal's Monclo preparation plant.
The dam stands 300 feet tall above Beech Creek. In 15 or 20 years, it will climb to more than 500 feet.
"This thing's a monster," said Ed Griffith, the state Division of Environmental Protection's top strip mine regulator for Southern West Virginia.
Behind the dam sits nobody-knows-how-much slurry: a thick mix of water, coal waste particles and rock. Over time, the solids settle to the bottom. The dam cleanses the black preparation plant water as it filters through to the creek.
Every day, a conveyor belt dumps mountains of rock and coal waste onto the dam. Slurry pours out into the pond from thick hoses that snake up from the prep plant.
Twenty-five years after Buffalo Creek, hundreds of huge coal dams still loom over the coalfields.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration counts more than 1,000 coal waste dams across the nation. West Virginia has 232 of these dams, far more than any other state. Kentucky has 155 and Pennsylvania 132.
Government officials and coal industry spokesmen say none of these dams could become another Buffalo Creek. They rattle off a list of new laws, regulations, construction standards and inspectors, all added since 1972.
"The difference is like night and day," said John Ailes, chief of the DEP Office of Mining and Reclamation. "Of all the things we do, these impoundments are probably the most scrutinized."
A review of federal and state dam safety records shows some convincing evidence that what Ailes says is true. On the other hand, the review also shows that coal dam problems are not just something for the history books.
So, on the 25th anniversary of the Buffalo Creek disaster, there are questions worth asking:
* Do current laws go far enough to prevent another Buffalo Creek? Laws existing in 1972 required dams to receive state permits and be built in a stable manner.
* Are today's inspectors vigilant enough? Before the Buffalo Creek dam broke, numerous state and local officials looked at it and never made Pittston Coal do anything about its obvious problems.
* Should the coal industry be allowed to build dams out of preparation plant waste in the first place? Studies of the Buffalo Creek disaster said the practice was a terrible idea that should be abandoned.
Coal industry critics couldn't answer these questions. One says he hasn't kept up with dam issues since the early 1980s. Another says she's too tied up with a dozen other strip mining controversies to focus on dams.
"These are the ultimate out-of-sight, out-of-mind structures," said Tom FitzGerald, a lawyer with the Kentucky Resources Council.
"This is an issue that gets the fleeting attention of bureaucracies in the aftermath of disasters," FitzGerald said. "But we know what the consequences of a catastrophic failure are, so I think it should command more attention."
During its 1973 session, the West Virginia Legislature passed the state Dam Control Act. West Virginia officials forced coal operators to either repair or drain existing dams.
Four years later, Congress cited Buffalo Creek as an example of the devastation mining can wreak when it approved the comprehensive, federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Congress also pushed MSHA to beef up its regulation of dams.
Today, coal operators must receive state and federal approval of construction plans before they build new dams. DEP and MSHA have specially trained engineers who review those plans to make sure the dams will be built safely.
Under new rules, dams must be built on solid ground, not on top of old, dried-up coal waste impoundments, as the Buffalo Creek dam was. Coal operators must compact waste so the dams will be sturdy enough. Operators must also provide spillways or drainage pipes to keep water at a safe level.
These requirements add up to dams that can handle, without overtopping or breaking, up to 45 inches of rain in 72 hours. The average annual rainfall in Charleston is about 43 inches.
"The whole way the Buffalo Creek dam was built was entirely different than the way they are built today," said Tom Hoffman, a spokesman for Consolidation Coal Co. "It's not just dumping material over the side of the hill and creating a blockage behind which water collects."
A watchful eye
In the last four years, state DEP inspectors have cited coal companies for more than 11,000 violations of strip mining regulations.
Only 95 of those citations, less than 1 percent, were for dam safety violations. In only 10 of those cases were the dam violations serious enough that DEP ordered them corrected immediately.
"We do a lot of things with coal companies, but this is something we don't have much trouble with," said Harold Ward, a DEP mining inspector.
At Ashland Coal's refuse dam, for example, workers on bulldozers were busy last month re-spreading coal waste on one side of the impoundment, where Ward had found that the walls were too steep.
"Our industry takes great pride in the efforts to make sure we don't ever revisit another event like Buffalo Creek," said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Last summer, federal mine safety officials conducted a special inspection sweep of coal dams across the country.
During inspections of the nation's 243 most hazardous dams - those with potential to injure people or damage property downstream - MSHA found only 17 violations of dam safety rules.
An internal MSHA report on the inspection sweep concluded, "The results revealed that the proactive response by district specialists to unusual weather conditions and other potential problems are an indication that the impoundment program continues to be very effective."
In the two MSHA districts that cover West Virginia, federal mine safety officials found no serious problems and issued no citations at the 117 dams they inspected, according to agency records.
"I'd say for that many dams, that's excellent," said Marvin Nichols, administrator of coal mine health and safety for MSHA.
The down side
Today's coal waste dams are far bigger than the dam that Pittston Coal Co. built on Middle Fork Valley near Buffalo Creek.
The three Buffalo Creek impoundments together measured less than 500 acre-feet. An acre-foot is an acre that measures a foot deep. Some of today's coal dams, many of which date back before the Buffalo Creek disaster, now measure 20,000 acre-feet or more.
"Impoundments are big," said the DEP's Griffith. "If you get a problem, it's going to be more than just killing some fish."
And problems aren't unheard of since Buffalo Creek.
The worst occurred on Dec. 18, 1981. An Eastover Mining Co. impoundment on the Left Fork of Ages Creek in Kentucky collapsed. About 125,000 cubic yards of saturated coal refuse material traveled more than 4,400 feet downstream. The flood killed one resident, Nellie Ball Woolum. It destroyed three houses and damaged 30 others.
In West Virginia alone, there have been five coal waste impoundment failures in the last 20 years, according to MSHA records obtained under the federal FOIA:
* On Aug. 14, 1977, a dam overtopped and breached during a heavy rainstorm at an Island Creek Coal Co. preparation plant at Bob White in Boone County. No off-site damage was reported.
* On July 17, 1980, at Philpott Coal Corp. in Raleigh, a slurry pond on top of an impoundment site failed. More than 168,000 gallons of black water poured through the neighborhood below.
* On June 11, 1981, a starter dam overtopped and partially breached during a heavy rainstorm at the Belva Coal Co. preparation plant in Rita, Logan County. No off-site damage was reported.
* On April 27, 1987, a pipe through a dam at Peabody Coal Co.'s Montcoal No. 7 preparation plant in Raleigh County developed a leak during a heavy snowmelt. It released 23 million gallons of black water into a creek.
* On Jan. 28, 1994, a drainage pipe on a valley-fill refuse pile at Consolidation Coal Co.'s Arkwright Mine near Morgantown failed because it was clogged and frozen. The incident sent 375,000 gallons of water rushing through the town of Granville. Several residences were damaged.
In 1994 and 1995 alone, there were 11 mining-related dam failures in the United States, according to separate reports filed with the Federal Emergency Management Agency by MSHA and the federal Office of Surface Mining.
"We can and do still have problems," said J. Davitt McAteer, assistant U.S. secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "But we have in place a system that should control them. It's reduced impacts to the point that they should not lead to disasters."
A review of DEP coal dam safety files shows a few bothersome trends.
First of all, though 23 of the 95 dam-related enforcement actions taken by DEP in the last four years were paperwork violations - companies that did not file inspection reports on time - the other 72 were for more serious violations.
Of the 85 notices of violation issued since January 1993, 16 cited companies that left combustible materials - which can cause problems with burning coal seams - too close to the impoundments. Another 14 NOVs cited companies that did not properly compact coal waste piled onto their dams. Another 13 cited companies that did not follow their own approved dam construction plans.
Second, the DEP is citing coal companies for dam-related problems more frequently in recent years.
The 95 violations cited between 1993 and 1996 amount to about 24 per year. Between 1973 and 1986, state officials cited coal companies for dam-related problems 241 times, or about 17 times per year over the 14-year period.
"Obviously, if those things continue, you look at it very closely," Ailes said. "But most of these you see out there are very minor."
Third, the DEP records show that a handful of companies account for a large portion of dam-related citations issued in the last four years.
Hawks Nest Mining, for example, was cited for 10 violations at two different mines. Lady H Coal was cited for six violations at one mine in Nicholas County.
Pittsburgh-based Consol was cited by DEP more often than any other company. Consol mines were cited 11 times in the last four years for dam-related problems.
None of the citations issued to Consol were for paperwork violations. All were for more serious problems, such as improper compaction of waste, faulty diversion ditches and not removing combustible material from close to dams.
However, Consol spokesman Hoffman said none of the citations directly threatened dam stability.
"The evolution of these things takes place at a pace that allows everyone to see problems when they occur, then we can get in there and take care of them," Hoffman said. "It's a process of building and testing, redoing as required, and building and testing again, and redoing as required."
Other kinds of problems
Outright dam failures that cause catastrophic floods aren't the only negative consequences of huge coal-waste impoundments.
The Arkwright accident, for example, didn't involve what most people would consider a dam. Instead, it was a pile of refuse that had a pipe in it to drain rainfall.
On Nov. 26, 1996, black water from a Consol coal waste dam at the company's Buchanan No. 1 Mine near Oakwood, Va., leaked into old underground mine workings and blew out the other side.
The blowout sent coal slurry gushing into a tributary of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River at a rate of up to 1,000 gallons a minute. The 25-mile spill blackened creeks and killed fish. A month earlier, the same thing happened at an Arch Mineral Corp. coal waste impoundment in Lee County, Va. The Arch Mineral operation had a nearly identical problem a few months before that.
On Feb. 11, MSHA ordered a nationwide examination of releases of water or slurry from impoundments into underground mines.
"The flow or discharge of water and/or slurry can present a danger to miners working in active mines below or adjacent to the impoundment," MSHA said in a hazard alert memorandum. "These hazards may extend to the downstream public and environment.
"The potential for future occurrences remains MSHA's concern as impoundments continue to be elevated adjacent to and above worked-out coal seams," MSHA said. "The likelihood of future occurrences exists if the extent of underground mine workings is not known and adequate safety barriers have not been left or installed."
A lingering question
There's one final question: Why are coal operators still building huge dams out of preparation plant waste?
Panel after panel that investigated the Buffalo Creek disaster blamed the dam failure in part on the weaknesses of coal waste as a construction material:
* The Governor's Ad Hoc Commission of Inquiry concluded, "The strength of refuse material is about the same as loose sand, but the most critical property of the material is its low unit weight.
"The lightness of the material needs to be considered in the dam design because it provides less confining pressure than an equivalent volume of more usual material," the commission said.
* The Geological Survey found that coal waste, "disintegrates rapidly, is high in soluble sulfates which reduce bonding strength, is noncohesive, and does not compact uniformly. A safe and economical dam could not be constructed from such material alone."
* The Citizens' Commission to Investigate the Buffalo Creek Disaster recommended coal waste dams be outlawed. The commission recommended a law requiring coal waste to be disposed of in old, underground mines.
McAteer, the nation's top mine safety official, said the coal industry investigated storing mine refuse in underground mines, but found it to be too expensive.
Jim Pierce, a DEP dam safety engineer in Logan, said coal companies have also found that the weaknesses in coal waste as a construction material can be overcome somewhat by proper compaction and by simply using huge amounts of refuse in building the dams.
"There's no other efficient way to get rid of the sludge," Pierce said. "If we want a coal industry in this area, this is a necessary evil we have to live with. But at least now we have greatly diminished the risk involved."