Sunday, October 22, 2000

Heavy rain could push mass of slurry over dam

Impact still a big unknown

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOUISA, Ky. — Water researchers Saturday revealed a growing sense of unease as they began to suspect that a feared mass of coal slurry was lurking behind an old dam here.

        “It's probably on the bottom of the Big Sandy and just sitting there,” said the Army Corps of Engineers' George P. Kincaid.

[photo] A cleanup worker walks across a bridge over the Coldwater Fork of the Rock Castle Creek, which has been polluted by a large mass of coal sludge.
(Craig Ruttle photos)
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        His colleagues spent the morning searching unsuccessfully for the main spill below the dam and Dr. Kincaid conceded it might not even be there.

        Rather the heavy slurry, which gushed from an impoundment that collapsed near Inez, Ky., on Oct. 11, might be accumulating behind the old dam, ready to wash over the barrier the first time a heavy rain or snow melt flushes down the river.

        Late Saturday, rain was falling across eastern Kentucky and the National Weather Service issued a flash-flood watch for the Portsmouth, Ohio, area, which is downstream from the sludge plume in the Ohio River.

        Experts have said that rain would help dissipate the 250 million gallons of sludge, further reducing the threat to the Ohio River. Heavy rain however, could also impede the intensive cleanup efforts at the spill's source, allowing more of the sludge to move downstream toward the Ohio.

        Earlier Saturday, inky water poured over the dam, allowing the lighter clay in the slurry to move down the Big Sandy and into the Ohio River upstream from Ashland, Ky.

        The spill is moving slowly downstream; its leading edge was detected Friday in the Ohio River, 3 miles downstream from the mouth of the Big Sandy.

[photo] Martin County Coal Company workers try to secure a pump and major water line in Inez, Ky., on Saturday in a stream not affected by a 250-million-gallon release of coal sludge upstream.
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        “The spill has only moved three miles in two days,” said Rhonda Barnes of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an eight-state compact created in 1948 to monitor pollution in the Ohio River.

        So far, that is no threat to drinking-water supplies or industrial uses, said Dr. Kincaid, the corps' water-quality chief. Moreover, he said, chemical analyses being shared with the corps by Kentucky officials indicate no unusual levels of toxic metals in the water.

        Arsenic, mercury and lead always are present and drinking-water treatment plants routinely remove them, he said.

        The Ohio was flowing slowly Saturday, and that has made it difficult for the commission to determine travel time for the spill and complicated plans for notifying water utilities downstream so they can determine how to treat the spill.

        As he watched murky water flow over the old dam, Tom Plyman, a welder from nearby Fort Gay, W.Va., offered what passes for optimism here.

        “It's clearing up a lot,” he said, shifting his 2-year-old son, Taylor, on his shoulders. “A few days ago, it was pretty black ... inky, oily.”

        Neither he nor Harold Caudill, who lives near Louisa, was willing to guess when they'd fish again in the river, but neither had seen dead wildlife of any kind accumulating on the banks.

        Fish, they speculated, migrated downstream or up a nearby branch when the slurry became too distressing for their gills.

        Away from the Big Sandy and Tug Fork, which feeds into it, residents were less sanguine.

[photo] Steven Wright of the Army Corps of Engineers holds a water sample taken from the Big Sandy River on Saturday.
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        In Inez, Ky., where the badly polluted Tug Fork forced the municipal water works to shut its intakes, a team from Martin County Coal Corp. fine-tuned a floating pump that was providing water from the untouched Middle Fork.

        A temporary dam of sandbags created a pool from which the pump could draw 1,300 gallons per minute.

        Company employees said it has been pumping since Saturday through large-diameter PVC pipes snaking through the creekside town to the treatment plant and reservoir.

        There are leaks, employees of the Martin County Water District said, but enough water is reaching the facility to satisfy Inez's 1,000 gallons-per-minute requirement.

        Farther up Coldwater Fork, the creek hardest hit by sludge exploding from the old mine after an impoundment pond collapsed into the tunnels, cleanup continued.

        “Paradise lost,” muttered Kay Ward at the Mullet Branch of the Coldwater outside Inez. Her lawn runs down to the creek, where a floating dredge has been pumping sludge 24 hours a day for a week.

        Slurry, the consistency of chocolate pudding, covers the creek and nearby bottomland so completely that it appeared to have been blacktopped by an enthusiastic contractor.

        Bad as it was, Mrs. Ward praised God that no one was killed when more than 250 million gallons of wet coal dust and clay burst through an old mine upstream.

        Mrs. Ward lost four relatives in the Buffalo Creek disaster, she said.

        In 1972, at Buffalo Creek hollow in West Virginia, 132 million gallons of sludge burst through a soggy Pittston Coal retaining dam, flooding the hollow. Mrs. Ward's relatives were among the 125 who died. About 1,100 were injured and 4,000 left homeless in Buffalo Creek.

        As she stood there, her driveway freshly swept, activity in Mrs. Ward's front yard was starkly different than it had been a little over a week ago.

        There, a huge crane lifted Paul Cox's floating dredge from the creek and laid it on the grass.

        Mr. Cox, a former miner and now a contractor with two dredges working at the creek, looked on with pride and disgust. He said he'd never had to deal with muck like this slurry, and seals on his pump had failed only because it had run 24/7 for more than a week.

        He expected to be back in action within hours. His other pump, upstream, was running without difficulty.

        Mr. Cox, whose Liqui-Sol Co. is based in Whitesville, W.Va., praised the coal company for its recovery efforts. Its trucks always were there to haul away the slurry pumped out by his dredges and new ponds were being built along the creek into which he hoped to pump directly.

        As he waited for parts, an employee hauled in a mobile bank of floodlights. “These lights are life-savers,” Mr. Cox said. “I don't work in the dark. When I worked in the coal mine, I worked in the dark.”

        But equipment wasn't all that was failing. His crews were wearing out too. “I'm trying to train new people as you go.”

        Earlier Saturday, a coal company spokesman said the firm was so busy trying to clean up the worst of the muck before it rained that no one had begun calculating the costs or numbers of men and machines involved.

        Similarly, a spokesman for Kentucky agencies involved in the cleanup said it was too early to estimate the scope of damage to wildlife.

        A fuller estimate of environmental damage won't be possible until more of the slurry flushes away, spokesman David Altom said, but he wouldn't guess when that might be.

        Mr. Altom said information would have to come from the Commonwealth's fish and wildlife specialists, but they either were off for the weekend or were working in the field; Saturday was the opening of deer season.

        James E. Bickford, secretary of the state Cabinet for Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, said Martin County Coal is continuing its cleanup efforts.

        Mr. Bickford said it's impossible to tell when the cleanup will end or how much it will cost. He said the state plans to bill Martin County Coal for whatever it spends responding to the spill.

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