Friday, October 20, 2000

Spill heads down Ohio

Officials prepare for unknown

By Jim Hannah
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CATLETTSBURG, Ky. — At the mouth of the Big Sandy River, 250 million gallons of coal sludge is slowly oozing into the Ohio River and toward Cincinnati.

        Government officials expect it will take the mass a week to travel the 148 miles downstream to the Tristate. They hope the spill — about the consistency of wet cement and at some points several feet thick — will dilute in the Ohio River to levels that won't threaten local water supplies.

[photo] Coal sludge blocks a driveway Wednesday in Martin County, Ky.
(Associated Press photo)
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        Environmentalists say they don't know what impact the sludge will have on local aquatic life.

        The likes of this spill, which U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have called the worst environmental disaster ever in the southeastern United States, has never been seen on the Ohio River before.

        “We don't know what we should do, so we are operating our dams and locks normally,” said Denis Chabot, natural emergency manager for the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers office in Huntington, W.Va. “No one can give us technical data. We are learning as we go.”

        The 250-million-gallon release is nearly twice the 132 million gallons of black wastewater from a Pittston Coal impoundment that in 1972 raced through the Buffalo Creek hollow in West Virginia, killing 125, injuring 1,000 and leaving 4,000 homeless.

        No injuries or major flooding were reported from this release, as it traveled through the underground mine and flowed along the Big Sandy's tributaries.

        The lava-like slurry — a watery mix of coal dust, clay and other byproducts of the coal-washing process — leaked out of a 72-acre impoundment near Inez, Ky., on Oct. 11.

        The gooey blob has flowed more than 75 miles northwest along the Big Sandy toward the Ohio and is stalled at Catlettsburg, Ky., where the rivers meet, and is approaching Ashland, Ky.

        In its path, it has suffocated wildlife, creating a “total kill” of fish and other aquatic life and has disrupted water service to Eastern Kentucky communities.

        Mr. Chabot said the Corps of Engineers doesn't know whether releasing water from reservoirs that line the Ohio will dilute the spill or make it worse by spreading the contamination over a wider area.

        The Corps is even having a hard time tracking the plume, its leading edge and maximum point of concentration. Mr. Chabot said the concentration is higher than what the Army Corps of Engineers' meters can read.

        “People downstream, here in the Greater Cincinnati area, might not feel an effect at all,” said Rhonda Barnes, communication coordinator for Cincinnati-based Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, which monitors pollution in the Ohio River watershed in eight states. “We don't know how it will affect the wildlife.”

        Local water systems are preparing for the possibility that they may have to shut down intake valves, however.

        The information gathered by the Corps is being given to water system operators who are tracking the sludge closely and say it should not cause a disruption in local water supplies.

        Sludge-contaminated water can be treated and has not caused any reported health threats to humans, said Deborah Metz, supervisor of treatment at Cincinnati Water Works. If the sludge becomes too thick and threatens to gum up equipment, she said, the agency can shut off its two intake valves.

        The sludge could then pass before the agency's three to four days of water reserves would become depleted.

        Northern Kentucky Water District officials will also shut off intake valves if the sludge is not adequately diluted. The district, which serves much of Kenton, Boone and Campbell counties, has several days of water stored. It also can rely more heavily on its Taylor Mill treatment plant, which draws water from the Licking River.

        Ohio environmentalists don't know what impact the sludge will have on aquatic life in the Tristate, but many fish, frogs, snakes and turtles have suffocated in the Big Sandy, where the coal sludge has blackened the water, said officials with the Kentucky Department for Fish and Wildlife Resources.

        The sludge was released last week after an impoundment pond gave way at a coal-preparation plant on a mountaintop outside Inez in the Eastern Kentucky county of Martin. The sludge is described as coal slurry, leftover coal residue from the refining process. The sludge has a high water content and the Associated Press has reported that it contains measurable amounts of metals, including arsenic, mercury, lead, copper and chromium.

        The impoundment is owned by the Martin County Coal Corp., part of Richmond, Va.-based A.T. Massey Coal Inc., a subsidiary of Fluor Corporation, a multinational headquartered in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

        The company has constructed filter berms to contain sediment and is using vacuum trucks and a mobile dredge to remove sediment from streams of Wolf Creek, Coldwater Fork and the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy. A company news release says that Massey has pollution insurance. The company's release said the sludge leak occurred because of a “sudden and unexpected” collapse of an underground mine near the impoundment pond.


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