By Vicki Smith
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) – Slurry pond failures like the one that swallowed a bulldozer and its driver at a West Virginia coal mine could be avoided if the waste pits were built to strict
construction standards that regulators ignore, said a mine safety expert and frequent critic of the coal industry.
For at least a decade, state and federal regulators have allowed coal companies to build or expand massive slurry ponds atop loose and wet coal waste, said Jack Spadaro, an engineering consultant and former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy.
“They’re building on top of the existing slurry, and therein lies the problem,” Spadaro said. “It’s wet and it has no stability. It’s creating hazards for all of us downstream.”
In all, there are 596 coal slurry impoundments in 21 states. West Virginia has 114, more than any other state, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Kentucky has 104, while Illinois is third with 71.
Spadaro’s criticisms follow the Nov. 30 failure of a section of embankment at Consol Energy’s Robinson Run mine slurry pond near Lumberport in the north-central part of the state. Two workers escaped after pickup trucks slid into the massive pond, but the dozer driver is missing.
“Since we’re still in recovery mode and have barely begun the investigation, it would be premature to comment at this time,” MSHA spokesman Amy Louviere said.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also declined comment on Spadaro’s charges, but Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said impoundment failures are rare.
“These are the most scrutinized and most engineered earthen structures in the world, certainly in this country,” he said. “They’re monitored routinely. They have lots of eyes looking at them. … Anytime there’s a heavy rainfall, the agencies are out there looking at them.”
Pennsylvania-based Consol was working to raise the elevation of the impoundment when the accident happened, vice president for safety Tom Barletta said. Once the worker is found, the company will determine what happened “so we can learn from it and prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future,” Barletta said.
The pond encompasses about 78 acres and is estimated to hold at least 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, the equivalent of more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.1 2 next >>