OSM Study: Coal Dams Fail Compaction Tests

Charleston Gazette
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 says.

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 it.

Updating: The Post changed the lead of its online story to refer to “man-made ponds for storing toxic sludge from coal mining operations…”

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.