Regulators say coal industry ignoring construction standards
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With a driver and his bulldozer missing in a thick, dark lake of coal slurry, a mine-safety expert and critic of the coal industry says regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent more failures at hundreds of similar damlike structures nationwide.
For at least a decade, state and federal regulators have allowed coal companies to build or expand huge ponds of gray liquid and silt 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,” he said. “It's wet, and it has no stability. It's creating hazards for all of us downstream.”
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, and Illinois is third with 71.
Slurry is a byproduct of washing coal to help it burn more cleanly. Companies have disposed of the dirty water and solids in various ways over the years, injecting it into abandoned mines; damming it in huge ponds, such as the one at Robinson Run; and, disposing of it with a costly dry filter-press process.
Spadaro's criticisms follow the Nov. 30 failure of a section of embankment at Consol Energy's Robinson Run mine slurry pond near Lumberport.
“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.
Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said impoundment failures are rare.
“They're monitored routinely. They have lots of eyes looking at them,” he said.
Pennsylvania-based Consol was working to raise the elevation of the impoundment when the accident happened, vice president for safety Lou 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.