Another Spill Hits Kanawha County, West Virginia

by Ken Ward Jr. / West Virginia Gazette

Fields Creek, a tributary of the Kanawha River, blackened by coal slurry. Photo: Kenny Kemp / West Virginia Gazette

Fields Creek, a tributary of the Kanawha River, blackened by coal slurry. Photo: Kenny Kemp / West Virginia Gazette

State officials were trying this morning to contain a “significant spill” of coal slurry from a Patriot Coal processing facility in eastern Kanawha County.

Emergency officials said that the spill had already blackened Fields Creek and was approaching spot where the creek empties into the Kanawha River near Chesapeake.

“We’re trying to contain it there,” said Tom Aluise, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Crews were using booms and taking water samples at the site of the spill and downstream, Aluise said.

The incident occurred at Patriot Coal’s Kanawha Eagle operation, which includes a coal preparation plant and the New West Hollow coal slurry impoundment.

Dale Petry, director of emergency services for Kanawha County, said that an eight-inch slurry line between the preparation plant and the company’s refuse impoundment ruptured, sending an underdetermined amount of coal waste into the creek before the flow was stopped.

“I would probably characterize it as a significant spill, but I don’t have a figure yet,” said Aluise, the DEP spokesman.

Patriot Coal officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Initially, Kanawha County emergency officials referred questions about the incident to the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Jimmy Gianato, director of the MAPS Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said he didn’t have a lot of details on the incident, but was under the impression it wasn’t that serious.

“I don’t think there’s really anything to it,” Gianato said. “It turned out to be much of nothing.”

There were also conflicting reports about when the incident occurred and when it was reported to the state.

Petry said that the incident occurred at about 6:15 a.m., and the company reported it to the state at 7:12 a.m. Petry said the incident should have been reported more promptly to local officials.

“I have problems with that,” Petry said. “I need to know about it a little bit sooner.”

Aluise, though, said the information he had indicated that the spill occurred sometime between midnight and 5:30 a.m. Company officials turned off the pump that sends slurry from the preparation plant to the impoundment at about 5:30 a.m., Aluise said.

Patriot called the incident in to the state’s spill line at 7:42 a.m., Aluise said.

Aluise said that the Patriot facility uses the chemical Crude MCHM in its coal-cleaning process, and that DEP was testing the water in the spill area for that chemical.

Coal slurry contains a variety of substances that could be more toxic than Crude MCHM, including other coal-cleaning chemicals and various metals.

Aluise noted that there were no drinking water intakes in the immediate vicinity of the spill.

Laura Jordan, a spokeswoman for West Virginia American Water, issued a statement to reassure the public that the slurry spill would not impact the company’s regional drinking water plant in Charleston — which is located about a mile upstream from where the Elk River empties into the Kanawha.

“Our employees are working on behalf of our customers with local and state officials to gather additional information,” Jordan said. “We have been in contact with the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, which concurs that they do not anticipate any impact to our plant on the Elk River.”

Coalfield citizens have for years complained about blackwater spills, and worried about the dangers of coal-slurry impoundments and the potential consequences of injecting coal slurry underground.

A little more than four years ago, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a report that cautioned the DEP was not taking strong enough enforcement actions to cut down on blackwater spills from mining operations.

“The team found that existing policies and procedures are not effective in reducing or preventing blackwater spills,” said the OSM report, issued in October 2009.

DEP officials rejected OSM’s suggestion that DEP re-examine its rules and policies on blackwater spills, arguing that the incidents were on the decline.

“The violation rate for blackwater spills is going down,” Tom Clarke, then-DEP’s mining director, said at the time. “The figures show it’s a declining problem.”

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