Sunday, June 09, 2002

Feds to inspect coal-waste site

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — A federal agency has agreed to inspect a Harlan County coal-waste impoundment that officials fear is overfilled and say could create a more disastrous spill than one in Martin County two years ago.

        There are homes in the path of a projected slurry flood in the case of the Harlan Cumberland Coal Co. impoundment, as well as U.S. 119 and the Cumberland River, regulators said in court papers.

        “There could be loss of life; there will clearly be tremendous property damage. Domestic water supplies will be disrupted,” Kentucky officials said in pleadings filed in Harlan Circuit Court last month.

        In October 2000, a Martin County Coal Co. waste impoundment near Inez collapsed, spilling 300 million gallons of black sludge through underground mine works. No one was killed or injured, but the sludge spread to neighboring property and spilled into nearby waterways.

        Even though the state has determined the impoundment violates its permit by being deeper than allowed, regulators have been barred by the court from taking action.

        As a result, the federal Office of Surface Mining has agreed to inspect the impoundment and to take “appropriate enforcement action” if necessary, the agen cy's Lexington field office director, William Kovacic, said in a letter Friday to Kentucky officials.

        Environmentalists said OSM should have acted sooner — as soon as the state was enjoined by the court on May 20 from blocking further pumping into the 64-acre impoundment.

        “This really calls into question at this point the level of commitment OSM has under this administration to implementing the law,” said Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, an environmental group that joined with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in raising concerns about the safety of the impoundment.

        Although the federal inspection is pending, OSM representatives already have visited the site with their counterparts from the state Department for Surface Mining Reclamation & Enforcement and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Mr. Kovacic wrote to Mr. FitzGerald last week that information currently available to OSM “does not establish an imminent danger” from the pond.

        In an interview, Mr. Kovacic said, “We are on a very prudent, legally defensible course of action.” As long as the state does not object during a five-day appeal period expected to start next week, the inspection will occur soon afterward, he said.


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