Tuesday, October 31, 2000

Sludge spill blame shared

Agencies never acted, groups say

The Associated Press

        INEZ, Ky. — Environmental groups say state and federal regulatory agencies are partly to blame for one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the Southeast.

        Long before 250 million gallons of coal sludge spilled from a mountaintop pond near Inez on Oct. 11, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials knew the potential existed, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency knew the material stored in the pond would wreak havoc on the environment if it escaped, the groups contend.

        Yet neither ordered Martin County Coal Corp. to stop using the 70-acre reservoir to hold waste generated from washing coal.

        “It seems like they all were aware of it, and they were all dragging their feet,” said Patty Wallace, a member of the environmental watchdog group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

        “Everybody let down on the job.”

        An accident similar to this one but on a smaller scale happened there in 1994, a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration report said. It happened in the same sealed-off portion of the mine that collapsed Oct. 11, company spokesman Bill Marcum said.

        The Oct. 11 failure sent 250 million gallons of tarlike sludge laced with arsenic, mercury and lead into tributaries of the Tug Fork, the source of most public water supplies in part of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

        Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said this month's disaster could have been avoided if the coal company had used a safer method of disposing of its waste.

        One alternative for dealing with the waste products, other than dumping them in impoundments, is to use presses similar to those cities are required to use to compact sewage to squeeze the water out of the coal waste material so it can be disposed of in solid form.

        Gary Drake, president of Phoenix Process Equipment in Louisville, said the cost of purchasing and operating the presses is about 25 cents a ton, or about $150,000 a press. Two of the presses, he said, can treat all wastes generated by most coal-preparation plants.

        “I've been kind of surprised that during this whole situation, no one has said there has been technology available for over 25 years that would have prevented it,” Mr. Drake said.


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- Sludge spill blame shared