MSHA Approves Coal Slurry Impoundment Taller Than Hoover Dam

Alpha Natural Resources has received approval from federal regulators to expand the Brushy Fork coal slurry impound, one of the biggest coal slurry impoundments in the nation, to a height  taller than the Hoover Dam. The impoundment is located near Whitesville, West Virginia, and will increase its holdings of coal waste from 6.5 billion gallons to 8.5 billion gallons.

The impoundment was developed in the 1990s by MarFork Coal Company, which was owned by Massey Energy at the time. In 2011, Alpha Natural Resources purchased Massey’s holdings, including the Brushy Fork impoundment.

Image Credit: Hoover Dam via Shutterstock
Image Credit: Hoover Dam via Shutterstock

Of course, Alpha is praising MSHA’s approval of the new expansion and is trying to play off the 6.5 billion gallons of coal waste that has been held in the impound since 2009, as mostly solid waste.

A retired miner Joe Stanley doubts the years-old waste inside has ever properly compacted and dried, meaning Alpha could be building on an unstable base. “What about the additional weight placed on top of that?” he said, speaking to “I don’t think this is going to fail. I truly believe it will fail. It’s just a matter of time.”

What happens if the impoundment fails? Emergency plans currently suggest a 100-foot wave of sludge could reach all the way to Sherman High School in 17 minutes.

“This thing could go all the way to Charleston,” Stanley said, “depending on what it takes out and which way it goes.”

Back in 2008 a coal ash pond in Tennessee ruptured, spreading its contents across 400 acres. A measure of the disaster was caught on video:

Of course, Alpha says, they are “committed to designing, building and operating facilities safely.”

“We make the safety of our impoundment’s among the highest priorities in our company because we recognize the responsibility that comes with impoundment ownership,” said Alpha spokeswoman Samantha Davidson. “If safety is ever in doubt, we won’t hesitate to stop working and shut down a mining operation.”

Ok. Lets stop right there. From first hand experience the only way they will shut down an operation is when MSHA or State Inspectors come and shut them down or there is a major accident. The first and foremost concevrn of all coal companies is to stay in the coal, not safety. So far in 2013, there have been five miners killed in West Virginia alone.

The impoundment, if fully approved, will stretch 910 feet from the toe of the embankment to the crest: the vertical dimension from the natural surface to the top of the dam will be 740 feet. The height of the Hoover Dam is 726 feet and is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World. After the impoundment reaches its capacity, it will be drained and filled with coarse material, then graded and capped with soil and vegetation.

According to WVDEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco, the agency is still reviewing Alpha’s plan for the final stages, but the state needed MSHA approval before it can act. DEP has returned Marfork’s application with some comments, so the timeline for state approval is uncertain.

Supposedly, the engineer that helped design the impound for Massey Energy was also involved in illegal ventilation plans at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, where an April 2010 explosion killed 29 men. And to make matters even worse, the engineering firm that was used to create Brushy Fork was also linked to the Martin County, Kentucky impound that failed in 2000.

The MartinCounty accident was a 68-acre holding pond that busted through the bottom and sent 306 million gallons of coal slurry speeding through Martin County before eventually spilling into the Ohio river leaving a path of destruction that residents are still dealing with today.

For years the Marsh Fork  Elementary School sat right below the impoundment with children and teachers in fear every time it rained. Fortunately, this year the school has moved to a safer location away from the threat of the Brushy Fork impoundment.

Being a former underground coal miner and living in West Virginia all my life, I have seen my fair share of these coal slurry impoundment’s. The expansion of this one has to be one of the dumbest ideas I have heard of in a long time.

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