Last Friday brought more terrible news to the West Virginia coalfields. A massive collapse at Consol's Nolans Run Impoundment in Harrison County just west of Shinnston had sent 2 engineers to the hospital and a bulldozer operator to the bottom of the slurry pond. As of writing, the body of the dozer operated had not yet been recovered despite efforts to drain the impoundment and several attempts to send divers. Recovery operations are in full swing and Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette is posting updates from MSHA here.
(Nolans Run Impoundment the day before the collapse)
The collapse occurred at the "upstream" side of the impoundment, away from the dam face, and MSHA officials say that there is no threat to the dam itself. The workers were flung into the impoundment when a 200' by 200' section of refuse fell into the impoundment. The massive impoundment is currently permitted to hold 3.4 billion gallons of sludge, though on a typical day it holds "only" 2 billion gallons. Apparently that's not big enough for CONSOL. The collapse occurred during construction to raise the crest of the impoundment by more than 40 feet. Since the land at the back of the impoundment isn't high enough, the company was building up an embankment made of coarse coal refuse by pushing refuse into the impoundment. This so-called "push-out" construction method is highly questionable. Placing large quantities of rock on top of wet fine slurry just isn't a good idea. Despite concerns with the construction method, our sources report that the Office of Surface Mining has not inspected this dam in 2 years, and MSHA has granted variances to normal regulations on dam construction. Sludge Safety and other citizen's groups have repeatedly questioned the safety of this practice in relation to plans to expand the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment in Raleigh County, currently the largest in the US. Last week's tragic accident underscores the seriousness of our concerns. It is even more disturbing when you realize that they planned to use this construction to hold back slurry and may yet try to do so.
The impoundment in question has quite a checkered compliance history. The Robinson Run complex has received 20 MSHA violations over the last 5 years and a dozen from the DEP. There was a blackwater spill that impacted 6 miles of Bingamon Creek just last year. The facility has had a long history of frequent black and gray water spills with 5 cessation orders for the most serious spills.
Disasters like this demonstrate in dramatic fashion while SSP continues to call for an end to slurry production and the safe decommissioning of all existing impoundments. We will continue to update this story as news becomes available.