OSM says it’s too early to release potentially critical slurry d - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

OSM says it’s too early to release potentially critical slurry data

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Citizen organizers hosted a press event April 25 to express concern with the construction methods used in building coal slurry dams. But the study they obtained, the Office of Surface Mining states, is not ready for release.

Joe Stanley, a retired coal prep plant worker with experience in sludge impoundment construction, said concern about the Brushy Fork impoundment near the Coal River raised questions about structural integrity of the impoundment. The Sludge Safety Project obtained the executive summary of a study conducted by the Office of Surface Mining, but the agency refused to release the rest of the report.

"We believe that (OSM), for reasons unexplained, deliberately chose to keep the testing results a secret," Stanley said. "We believe that had (OSM) issued its report, MSHA would have had to think long and hard about its recent decision to grant Alpha permission to make the Brushy Fork impoundment, which is already taller than the Hoover Dam, even bigger."

In a prepared issued shortly after the Sludge Safety Project press event, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection released a statement on the report.

"The DEP had concerns over the methodology used in the OSM calculations, so we are working with OSM to collect and analyze data so we all have an accurate assessment of the compaction at these impoundment," the statement read. "One important thing for people to know is that none of the data collected by any agency has found the impoundments in danger of failure. Another important point is we are working together with both OSM and MSHA to ensure that mining companies are constructing these impoundments properly."

Stanley said he wants to know why agency hasn't ordered further testing given so much at risk. He said he specifically would like the report to be released for analysis by citizen consultants.

The stakes could be high – millions of gallons of coal slurry can be stored in behind such dams. The Brushy Fork dam is several magnitudes larger than the Buffalo Creek impoundment that broke through and killed 125 people and destroyed more than 500 houses in 1972.

The failure of a dam filled with the liquid coal wastes sent more than 300 million gallons of slurry into streams in Martin County, Ky. in October 2000. The owner of that pond, Massey Energy, spent millions trying to restore the health of the two Tug Fork River tributaries.

The OSM's public statement was in agreement with the DEP. Chris Holmes, OSM spokesman, said the agency is working proactively to deal with a "potential issue with compaction of dams at coal slurry impoundments." The agency first began working on the issue in 2010.

"OSM will share all of its information with the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) to provide further evaluation of the data, while continuing to work with West Virginia," Holmes said. "To date, OSM has not found an indication that any coal slurry impoundment is in imminent danger of failure. Had it done so, OSM would have taken action immediately."

Holmes said "good science and engineering takes time and effort" and that is what the agency is committed to doing.

Roger Calhoun, Charleston field director for OSM, said the issue with the report is concerns over the accuracy of its findings. Because OSM believes the testing process may have been flawed, he said the agency would not release the raw data for review by private citizens.

"We're not going to release the raw data until we, OSM, have confirmed that the data is complete and verified and should be released," Calhoun told members of Sludge Safety Project. "No, we're not going to release it."

Calhoun said the questions aren't about the results, but how the test was conducted.

"We're not going to give out the data until we're comfortable that we, the owners of the data, are comfortable with the data," Calhoun said.

The concerns indicated by the one-page executive summary of the Office of Surface Mining study, titled "Oversight Report of Compaction of Coal Mine Waste Slurry Impoundment Embankments Evaluation Year 2011," points out four different observations.

The findings indicated materials that compact only at a narrow range of moisture content, coal wastes arrive at the impoundment in a wet condition, operators typically add material in possible non-ideal weather conditions and compaction equipment used is designed for compaction.

"In most cases, the reported compaction equipment is one or more dozers," the report states. "Dozers are not designed to compact soil. The tracks are designed to allow the dozer to operate on loose ground."

Rob Goodwin, a researcher on sludge safety issues for Coal River Mountain Watch and member of the Sludge Safety Project, said he's called equipment operators about using bulldozers for compaction.

"You usually get this kind of confused answer, ‘why would use a bulldozer for compaction?' Goodwin said. "… (Coal mining companies are) using bulldozers for compaction and that's common practice in the industry."

Goodwin said too much of the current data regulators used is provided by the companies themselves over actual inspection by regulators. He said some of those companies have shown a history of cutting corners at the cost of risk to employees and the public.

"They should not be put at risk by a company that can not ensure 100 percent compliance with regulations and that there's a 100 percent chance these dams won't fail," Goodwin said.

The study was designed to test the ability of operators to "consistently able to be adequately compact the coarse refuse under conditions that would appear to be adverse." The materials are intended to settle and compact, failure to do so could threaten the integrity of the slurry dam.

According to the report, OSM engineers had observed consultants recording passing test results, though visual observations "indicate the material may not be adequately compacted."

"Results of the testing tend to indicate that the coarse refuse is not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved specifications," the report states. "Failing field density tests occurred at all seven of the sites investigated."

According to the report, of the 73 field density tests spread over seven sites, only 16 tests passed.

"These results indicate the quality control methods used during embankment construction may not be achieving the desired results," the report states.

Freda Williams was among the people in front of the Office of Surface Mining's Charleston field office. She said that