Friday, January 19, 2001

Spill prompts study

Banning coal ponds may not be feasible

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

        FRANKFORT — The state should close coal slurry impoundments like the one that ruptured in October and fouled waterways in eastern Kentucky, and prohibit future ponds, a state environmental panel recommended Thursday.

        Deputy Natural Resources Secretary Bruce Williams said eliminating slurry ponds is impractical right now, though some companies are looking for alternatives, in part because of the spill.

        A spokesman for the coal industry said the results of a study of other methods of cleaning coal should be examined before hasty decisions are made.

        “They're trying to come up with a simple answer, and there may be no simple answer,” said Bill Caylor, director of the Kentucky Coal Association.

        The ponds are used to collect the debris from preparing the coal for market, which produces a watery gray-black substance that is the consistency of wet concrete.

        About 250 million gallons of the goo streamed out of a 72-acre pond in Martin County on Oct. 11, gushing through abandoned mineworks and into two streams and eventually into the Big Sandy River that separates eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The pond was operated by Martin County Coal Corp.

        The Environmental Quality Commission, a citizens panel appointed by the governor to advise the state, said the state should encourage dry processing of coal.

        The National Academy of Sciences was given a grant this year to study alternative coal cleaning methods. A report is due in October.

        State and federal mining officials are still studying how the pond ruptured, but the accident has prompted a review of similar ponds that dot coal fields around the region. Nearly 100 were found in West Virginia, a dozen in Virginia, 61 in Kentucky and unknown numbers in other states.

        Allen Luttrell, deputy commissioner of the Department of Surface Mining in Kentucky, said 16 of the Kentucky ponds have been thoroughly studied and two companies have been cited for violating mining standards.

        Mr. Williams said the best available maps are used, but sometimes the location of very old, abandoned underground mine passageways are simply unknown. Some sites have been drilled re cently to determine the location of possible abandoned mine areas under or near slurry ponds.

        Mr. Luttrell said the accident has prompted a review of many requirements and procedures. “I don't have an easy answer for it,” he said.

        Meanwhile, cleanup of the spill, which left sludge blanketing the areas around Wolf and Coldwater creeks, is continuing, said Robert Logan, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

        Environmental Quality Commission members, who are gubernatorial appointees, asked to make recommendations to the state on various topics, said they have gotten complaints about the cleanup.

        Mr. Logan acknowledged there was “moonscape devastation” in some areas that forced cleanup crews to scrape away to bare earth. And he said the stream beds of the creeks simply became unrecognizable under the sludge.

        It will take time for vegetation to regain a hold and the streams may never return to their original state, though that is the goal.

        “Certainly, it's not pretty now,” Mr. Logan said.


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