Friday, February 16, 2001

Bottom of sludge pond only 10 feet

But Martin County maps showed 70-foot barrier

The Associated Press

        INEZ, Ky. — Less than 10 feet of rock was all the separated an underground mine from a massive pond that spilled 250 million gallons coal sludge into streams in eastern Kentucky.

        But maps supplied to regulators by Martin County Coal showed the protective barrier to be 70 feet.

        The finding raises the potential that similar situations exist at some of the 60 other waste impoundments in Kentucky near underground mines — a concern to residents and others.

        “Clearly if you don't know how much of a barrier you have, you can't begin to say if they're safe or unsafe,” said Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council.

        The 72-acre impoundment in Martin County failed Oct. 11. An estimated 250 million gallons of a sludge-like mix of water and coal particles poured out through a nearby underground mine into creeks and rivers.

        The likely cause of the massive leak is that a collapse in an underground mine opened a hole in the impoundment.

        Environmental groups called for an end to impoundments after the spill.

        The investigation of the spill shows that the barrier to prevent such a leak was far thinner than regulators thought.

        Federal mine-safety officials canceled Martin County Coal's permit for the impoundment and state officials ordered the company to close it, saying the thin barrier raises questions about its stability.

        Company officials, who could appeal the orders, did not return phone calls Wednesday.

        State and federal officials will assess whether to order improvements at existing impoundments and adopt new rules to make sure underground mines don't damage future impoundments.


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