CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement agreed Tuesday to meet with residents who fear a catastrophic failure of a 7 billion gallon coal slurry dam in southern West Virginia could rain sludge down on their homes, businesses and children.
Roger Calhoun, director of the agency's Charleston field office, told roughly 20 concerned citizens who gathered outside his office, across from a playground, he would meet with them inside.
Regulators have ordered stability tests on the dam. But they're not convinced there's a problem with its construction. Still, OSM cited Alpha Natural Resources subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. on May 26 "for failure to prevent liquification and provide safeguards against the development of this condition."
Impoundments — used to contain both solid refuse and coal slurry, the wastewater produced when coal is washed to help it burn more cleanly — have failed before. But it's been nearly 40 years since it happened in West Virginia.
Critics argue that an impoundment must be built precisely to the approved engineering plan, or the material inside may never fully compress and dry out. Under heavy rains, critics fear the contents could liquefy, increasing pressure on the impoundment and eventually triggering its failure.
Virginia-based Alpha is the new owner of the former Massey Energy property.
In 1972, an earthen dam in Logan County's Buffalo Creek collapsed after heavy rain, unleashing a flood that killed 125 people, injured 1,100 and left about 4,000 homeless.
In 2000, a Massey Energy coal waste dam in Martin County, Ky., failed and released some 300 million gallons of slurry, creating a flood as wide as a football field and 6 feet deep.
No one died when the slurry burst through the bottom of the Martin County Coal Corp.'s 68-acre impoundment, flooding an underground mine and polluting 100 miles of waterways. But Massey eventually paid $46 million for the cleanup.
State inspectors who visited the Brushy Fork impoundment have found nothing to suggest a defect. Still, the state is working with engineers and Alpha to devise a testing plan to prove it's safe.
Alpha has said company officials and a consulting engineer met with state and federal officials and presented data to confirm the impoundment met all state and federal regulatory requirements.
But because of resident complaints and concerns, officials agreed to take a closer look at the situation.
Asked if residents have reason to be afraid, Calhoun told reporters, "You'll have to talk to them. We've not seen any evidence there's an imminent danger of failure from that impoundment."
Residents who gathered outside the Charleston OSM office said the feds should produce their own data rather than rely on data from the company to prove things are safe.
"Coal mining is a dirty business, not a green business," said Joe Stanley, a retired miner from Wayne County who battled Massey over the impoundment for years.
Stanley has long been concerned about the impoundment. That concern deepened after he received anonymous phone calls suggesting it wasn't being built properly.
Stanley said he has nothing against mining — it is vital to the state economy — but he believes more care should be taken by the industry to make sure residents who live nearby are not harmed.
Other residents held signs, pictures of the impoundment and pictures of potential damage if sludge were to impact nearby homeowners.
"Nobody should have to wake up every day and worry about a wall of slurry hitting them," said Junior Walk, a resident of Whitesville and a staffer for Coal River Mountain Watch, which helped organize the gathering.
Calhoun said it is common for officials to rely, at least in part, on data provided by companies in the industry. He said his agency would continue its review.