Yesterday, the Charleston Office of Surface Mining released its long-awaited, final report on the potential of sludge impoundments to "break through" into underground mines beneath them. (Read it here.) This type of impoundment failure cause the disastrous spill in Martin County, Ky in 2000 and several other sludge spills. Since the Martin County disaster, the OSM has been studying "bottom failure" and issuing recommendations. Despite new rules issued in 2003 and a previous OSM report in 2008, the new report continues to show damning problems in the DEP's enforcement. Of the 15 impoundments studied in the report, 11 had design flaws, inadequate information about underground mines, and/or missing documentation. Nearly all these problems were identified in 2008 and almost none had been fixed in the 5 years since then. The Campbell's Creek impoundment was so far out of compliance that the OSM recommended immediately stopping adding slurry to limit the risk of a spill. In one case, an impoundment that had been ordered to close because of the potential for a break though was still being "occasionally" used 10 years later. Despite this frightening track record, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman had this to say about the report, "I didn’t view any of [the OSM findings] as an indictment of DEP’s program." While the OSM didn't find any impoundments that were in immediate danger of failing, Secretary Huffman's casual attitude towards the serious findings in this report shows that once again they are willing to roll the dice when it comes to community health and safety.
One key issue raised in this report is what happens to an impoundment after it is closed, capped and abandoned. When an impoundment is full and the industry doesn't need an impoundment (or when they are order to close because they are unsafe like 5 of the impoundments in the report), generally they just pump the clear water off the top and cover the whole thing with waste rock. The DEP and the industry claim that this eliminates any danger of the impoundment failing, but OSM isn't so sure. The report clearly states that there is no evidence collected that the slurry under the rock isn't still a liquid able to break through into mines below. The OSM has now made it crystal clear that capping impoundments does not appreciably decrease the chance of the impoundment failing. We have raised this issue with the OSM many times and they have admitted readily in our meetings that no one knows how long it takes for a capped impoundment to dry out completely. Despite the fact that the DEP agrees that no one knows how long it takes to dry, they have been readily allowing mining below and slurry cell construction above capped impoundments with no information collected about the slurry until now.
This only confirms what we have been saying for years, impoundments continue to pose serious risks to communities even decades after they are no longer active.
We couldn't have put it better than the DEP themselves when they said, "...complete dewatering of an abandoned impoundment, like Trace Branch, could span upwards of a hundred years. In consequence, perhaps no impoundment should ever be released [from their bond and permit], or constructed in the first place, when considering this issue is perceived in its strictest sense." Impoundments are ticking timebombs scattered all over our state. The DEP claims it wants "to use the most conservative approach to ensure the safety [of] all dam control structures under our jurisdiction." The most conservative approach is to embrace the precautionary principle and stop all construction and expansion of all impoundments until all considerations about long-term stability, adequate construction methods and potential groundwater contamination are answered thoroughly. Instead the DEP is just requiring the coal companies to submit additional information. Oh, and it's going to take them 3 years to do it.
While not every impoundment is undermined, there are many other critical issues with impoundments. The OSM began to study whether slurry dams were being properly compacted during construction to ensure stability two years ago. Two months a coal miner died when a portion of a slurry pond collapse under him. We can't wait for another 10 years to get results from this study. For one coalfield family, they may already be too late.