OSM Study: Coal Dams Fail Compaction Tests
24 April 2013
By Ken Ward Jr.
Well, a coalition of citizen groups had scheduled a press
conference tomorrow morning, to release some leaked results of a
key federal safety study of coal industry waste impoundments. But
the cat is out of the bag, as they say, with the results
also being leaked to The Washington Post. The Post reports tonight
in a short item on its website:
Many of the man-made ponds for storing toxic sludge from
coal-fired power plants have dangerously weak walls because of
poor construction methods, according to the synopsis of a study
for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
obtained by The Washington Post.
Tests of the density of these impoundment walls showed flaws at
all seven sites surveyed in West Virginia, with only 16 field
tests meeting the standards out of 73 conducted, the 2011 report
Unfortunately, of course, we’re actually not talking about “toxic
sludge from coal-fired power plants.” The OSM report is
about an agency investigation into the safety of coal-slurry
impoundments — huge dams that are made of and used to store the
waste generated by preparation plants that are used to clean raw
coal before it is shipped to power plants. The Post story, by
Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson, actually appears to explain
that more clearly later on:
Slurry, also known as coarse coal refuse, is what is left over
once companies wash coal to enable it to burn more efficiently.
Coal firms have disposed of this combination of solids and water
in a few different ways: damming it in large ponds, depositing it
in abandoned mines and using a dry filter-press process to compact
Updating: The Post changed the lead of its online story to refer
to “man-made ponds for storing toxic sludge from coal mining
The document that’s the basis for the story is a one-page
executive summary that explains:
OSM engineers became concerned that embankment construction
quality control may be inconsistent when they observed cases of
material being placed under wet conditions,, excessive lift
thickness, and consultants recording passing test results when
visual observations (pumping and rutting) indicate the material
may not be adequately compacted.
So OSM hired a consulting firm to perform compaction testing on a
selected group of the hundreds of impoundments across West
Virginia’s coalfields. And they found:
Results of the testing tend to indicate that the coarse refuse is
not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved
specifications. Failing field density tests occurred at all seven
of the sites investigated. Of 73 field density tests performed at
the seven sites, only 16 yielded passing results.
And the kicker:
These results indicate the quality control methods used during
embankment construction may not be achieving the desired results.
OSM had originally planned to release this study last fall, at
least according to the plan described in the agency’s 2011
oversight report on the West Virginia Department of Environmental
Protection. But somewhere along the line, the plan changed, as the
agency explained in the 2012 oversight report:
Prior to publishing, results of this study will be compared with
those of a similar study, currently being performed by the WVDEP.
The OSM and WVDEP studies will be completed in the future.
In late 2011, OSM turned down my Freedom of Information Act
request for the raw test result data. The agency also turned down
requests from citizen groups for that same data.
OSM spokesman Chris Holmes said that the agency “found that the
data used to generate this draft report was not complete” and
“generated more questions than a clearly definable, scientifically
sound answer.” According to Holmes:
OSM determined that the data gathered was not sufficient to fully
answer the question and make a determination. OSM is now
gathering additional data and asking other government agencies to
evaluate both the methods and results.
This disclosure comes just a few months after January’s release of
a major OSM report that found, as we reported at the time:
West Virginia regulators have not adequately examined the risks
that coal-slurry impoundments across the state could break into
adjacent underground mine workings and cause a disaster like the
one more than a decade ago in Martin County, Ky.