The U.S. Has Nearly 600 Coal Waste Sites. Why They've Got West Virginians Worried

Residents fear that coal-contaminated water is seeping into their wells. But a lack of evidence is stalling action.
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The former site of Marsh Fork Elementary School, with a coal preparation plant in the background. Photo by the author.

Marsh Fork Elementary, deep in West Virginia coal country, is shut down and fenced in, a fine layer of dirt covering its once-cheerful sign: “Staff-Students-Parents Working Together.” Next door, the Goals Coal Prep Plant still plugs away, treating coal mined just a few miles away and pumping the byproducts of that treatment up into the sky.

Locals are worried that slurry is poisoning underground water reserves, but empirical evidence is lacking.

Junior Walk, 25, a former student, points to an earthen dam visible from the driveway to the school. The school lies in a narrow valley between two long ridges. The Marsh Fork carves a path between, and the two-lane WV-3 runs alongside it. Bare winter trees and brush open up to a field surrounding the school. Above the former elementary, rock and refuse from mountaintop removal mining holds back 2.8 billion gallons of liquid slurry.

Behind the barrier, a “slurry impoundment,” as it’s called in the industry, contains byproducts from the prep plant and drainage from a 2,000-acre surface mining site that surrounds it. The slurry, which contains fine particles and chemicals used to “clean” and prepare coal for sale, may bear some resemblance to the 108,000 gallons of slurry that blackened a West Virginia creek a year ago in February. That slurry also came from a coal preparation plant.

There are nearly 600 slurry impoundments in the U.S., many of them concentrated in the coal-mining territories of Appalachia. Local activists in West Virginia argue that these impoundments pose a huge danger to surrounding communities due to the chemical composition of these lakes of slurry, along with the fact that many are held back by potentially unstable dams made of mining rubble—dams that have fatally failed before.

In January 2013, classes started at a new Marsh Fork Elementary after years of effort on the part of local groups, such as Coal River Mountain Watch, to move the school from this potentially dangerous area. Impoundments like these have collapsed before, and Walk, outreach coordinator for CRMW, says it may be only a matter of time before another collapses. Locals are also worried that slurry is poisoning underground water reserves, but as with many coal industry controversies, empirical evidence is lacking on both sides of the debate.

Locals lobby for more information

Walk isn’t the only one worried about potential impacts of coal slurry on the people and environments surrounding waste sites. In 2009, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection imposed a moratorium on the approval of new coal slurry injection sites. These sites are abandoned underground mines, another place where coal slurry is commonly stored. That moratorium is still in effect, as far as CRMW members can tell. The WVDEP did not return repeated calls to confirm this.

Vernon Haltom considers the moratorium a hard-fought victory for the Sludge Safety Project, one of the first organizations to focus on slurry impoundments and safety issues when it was founded in 2004. Haltom is with Coal River Mountain Watch, which co-founded the Sludge Safety Project with another Appalachia-based group, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Since 2004, a major focus of the SSP has been its lobbying for more information and scientific studies surrounding the safety of slurry impoundments and injection.

“What our safety project did was get citizens and scientists to testify at the hearings and speak to the legislature,” Haltom explains. But lobbying didn’t happen in 2014 because of what Haltom calls “a certain amount of lack of return on our investment. … The legislature didn’t get any friendlier these last couple elections.” Today, the SSP operates as a part of the larger citizen enforcement groups in the area.

In 2012, West Virginia delegate Mike Manypenny introduced a bill to ensure the moratorium enacted in 2009 was permanent until additional research into the safety of slurry injection had been performed.

“The studies that have been done are on the slurry that goes in and the water outfalls that come out the mine pools,” Manypenny said in a 2012 article on the website of West Virginia University’s School of Public Health. “There’s never been a true in-mine pool study to determine what’s really happening to the coal slurry.”

There was no further action on the bill after its first day, however. A similar bill in 2011 made it further, achieving House and Senate committee votes.

More information could be life-changing for people like Alfred Ray Price. Price worked for 19 years at a coal preparation plant, where the slurry is produced. At age 47, he stopped working because of his health, and today he lives in a world of unknowns, suffering from cognitive disorders for which no one can pinpoint the source.

Part of Price’s job at the prep plant was spraying antifreeze into coal cars to keep coal from sticking to the sides. He remembers the sweet taste of the antifreeze as it glanced off the cars back into his face and down his throat.

“They told us it was antifreeze,” Price says, “and I asked them if it was harmful, and of course they said no. And I asked for safety data sheets, and I never was given one.”

There’s no single way for doctors to link health problems to working conditions in the coal industry.

Stories like these are common but almost impossible to confirm. It is also nearly impossible to draw a direct link between the health problems that workers like Price have experienced later in life and their chemical exposure on the job—time introduces too many unknowns, and even if chemical exposure were pinpointed as the cause of Price’s health problems, who is to say that the inciting chemical was at his workplace and not in his well water? Meanwhile, there’s no single way for doctors to link health problems to working conditions in the coal industry.

“There is no characteristic sign and no characteristic lab test except for the measure of the chemical itself in the human body,” explains Dr. Alan M. Ducatman, who has had many coal-industry workers as patients. And, he adds, many chemicals don’t leave traces over the long term.

In danger of collapse?

In 2000, the Big Branch Slurry Impoundment near Inez, West Virginia, collapsed into an underground mine and 309 million gallons of slurry were spilled. Many called it one of the worst environmental disasters in the southeastern U.S. The worst impoundment failure in U.S. history happened in 1972, at Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, and was caused by heavy rain and structural deficiencies, which led to a 132-million-gallon spill that killed 125 people.

“Now you compare that to the Brushy Fork impoundment, which sits a mile above my parents’ house,” says Walk. “Largest earthen dam in the Western Hemisphere, [taller] than the Hoover Dam, holds back 7.8 billion gallons—billion gallons—of this toxic waste.” If the dam ever breaks, Walk says, “My parents and my family would be some of the first in the path.”

Estimates of Brushy Fork’s capacity range from 6.5 billion to 8.5 billion gallons, amounting to about 64 times more slurry than was spilled at Buffalo Creek. Brushy Fork’s owner, Alpha Natural Resources, says the contents are mostly solid, not liquid; a 2007 evacuation plan states only the upper 30 feet of material would be “flowable.” But that same plan also estimates that, in a worst-case scenario, a wave from the collapse of the Brushy Fork impoundment could reach as high as 72 feet, and travel for miles into surrounding communities.

In the Elk Creek chemical spill near Charleston that caused a national uproar in January 2014, just about 7,500 gallons leaked from the Freedom Industries storage tanks.

These aren’t isolated incidents. A federal study conducted in 2011 found that embankments holding back the slurry at seven impoundment sites were “not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved specifications.” Just 16 out of 73 field density tests conducted at these sites met specifications.

In response to the study, Nancy Gravatt, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, wrote in an email, “Our industry works closely to ensure federal and state guidelines are followed and to prevent slurry impoundments from failing.”

She added that slurry impoundments are built to strict specifications and highly regulated.

“Impoundment design plans, prepared under the direction of certified and registered professional engineers and geologists, are complemented by rigorous inspection procedures followed by federal and state inspectors,” Gravatt wrote.

Although other studies conducted by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which regulates impoundment design, operation, and construction, have seen more encouraging numbers, they have also identified potential hazards.

One impoundment was closed because of its breakthrough potential, yet the report noted that new mining has taken place beneath it.

A study published in 2013 by the OSMRE looked at the permits for 15 high-risk slurry impoundments in West Virginia, and identified administrative or design concerns on 11 of those permits. When companies decide not to add any more slurry to an impoundment, such impoundments are often “capped,” meaning they are covered and generally planted with vegetation. But the 2013 report also raised concerns that once an impoundment has been capped, the state of West Virginia doesn’t take special precautions to ensure that new underground mining doesn’t occur close to the basin. One impoundment, Crooked Run, was closed because of its breakthrough potential, yet the report noted that new mining has taken place beneath the impoundment.

Meanwhile, some worry that disposing of slurry in impoundments and underground mines threaten local water sources. While there’s not enough evidence to say this happens on a regular basis, there have been a few studies on the topic, including a 2004 study prepared by Dr. Ben M. Stout III and research assistant Jomana Papillo, both of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. For the study, 15 wells within 2 air miles of West Virginia’s Sprouse Creek Surface Impoundment were sampled; this followed reports of occasional “blackwater” in wells, the source of water for many area residents. Lead, arsenic, and other metals were discovered in several wells, and primary drinking standards for various metals were exceeded 13 times.

In March, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration announced that it would be taking a “closer look” at scientific studies that have connected mountaintop removal coal mining with premature death, cancer, birth defects, and other illnesses. Haltom is cautiously hopeful that Dr. Rahul Gupta, recently appointed the health commissioner of West Virginia, will guide the state’s policies in a new direction.

But Haltom is also hoping that newly introduced federal legislation could address these issues. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) was introduced in Congress in February and seeks to broaden scientific research into the health impacts of mountaintop removal mining.

“It’s pretty clear that we need federal intervention,” Haltom said. “It feels like we’re a third-world country appealing to the United States for assistance.”

Impoundment alternatives

A 2002 National Academy of Sciences report listed several alternatives to slurry impoundments, and recommended that these be studied throughout the mining community. These include the use of slurry for power generation, alternative combustion technologies that could reduce the production of slurry, and dewatering, which creates a thicker, more solid substance.

For now, the way to make existing slurry impoundments safer is through “reclamation.” The idea is that eventually water and heavy materials separate and water runs off or evaporates, leaving the heavier materials behind. These are eventually covered, and topped with soil and seed. However, some argue that not enough is done to reduce the hazards of the materials that remain.

“I seriously question whether those solids ever actually dry out,” says Rob Goodwin, who has collaborated with such organizations as CRMW and works on mining enforcement issues.

Moreover, regulations don’t address the time frame over which reclamation should occur.

"[West Virginia has] been under the thumb of extractive industries."

“From the point at which they stop injecting slurry into the impoundment to the point where they’re required to have it completely reclaimed, there’s no time limit there,” Goodwin explains. “At the very, very, very soonest, you’re talking like 25 years. There’s very, very few impoundments out there that have been reclaimed and achieved that status.”

A reclaimed impoundment “has to be maintained forever” in order to be truly safe, Stout says. “That is similar to a nuclear waste site; of course, it’s not as dangerous.”

Ending the “resource colony”

Walk remembers his family’s well running red water when he was a child. He blames underground slurry disposal for the color of that water.

“They pump it into old underground coal mines, which is what they did on the ridgeline above my home, and they were blasting right on top of it for a surface mine, and it just seeped into the aquifers, got into our wells, and that’s what happened to our water,” he says.

Walk and local organizations like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition have called for an end to “sacrifice zones,” wherein people who live in coal mining areas are asked to forfeit their needs for a greater prosperity.

“The thing is, this part of southern West Virginia has been essentially a resource colony for the past 150 years for the rest of the United States. It’s been under the thumb of extractive industries. First it was logging, and then it was coal. Now it’s coming to look like it’s going to be natural gas,” Walk says. “I, for one, am sick and tired of the people from my state being expected to go to work in a mine for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, and break their backs and kill themselves to make all kinds of money for somebody sitting up on Wall Street.”

Walk worked at coal preparation plants for less than a year before he started taking on an activist role.

“You know, when you’re a little kid and you’re going to school, you don’t think nothing of it. You figure every elementary school’s got a prep plant in the backyard. It wasn’t until I got older, got to travel a little bit—I realized not everybody has to live this way. This isn’t the American way of life.”