Archives 2005

Coal-sludge dam hazardous to school

Coal sludge dam hazardous to school

By Bo Webb and Vivian Stockman

NEAR their mining operations, often at the heads of hollows, coal companies construct dams from mine refuse. Behind the dams, they create slurry or sludge lakes, which store the liquid waste left over from washing and processing coal at coal preparation plants.

There are about 150 active coal-sludge impoundments and several hundred inactive or abandoned impoundments in West Virginia. Some impoundments sit near or above schools — such as the Marsh Fork Elementary School on W.Va. 3 in Raleigh County. About 270 children, from kindergarten through grade 5, are enrolled in Marsh Fork, which was built in the late 1930s, and then rebuilt in the ‘60s after a fire.

Coal mining operations began around the school in the early 1980s. In 1985, a sludge dam was built above the school. About 300 yards from the school, a coal-preparation plant was built. (Note that there are at least two lawsuits pending, filed by sick coal-prep plant workers against manufacturers of the chemicals used in coal-prep plants. The workers contend that those chemicals made them ill.)

A silo for storing and loading coal towers over the school, just 160 feet from the school’s air intake vents. These operations changed hands a couple of times; they are now owned by Massey Energy.

In late 2003, Massey filed for a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection to surface and mountaintop mine 1,849 acres above the school and behind the sludge dam. The dam would not only hold waste from the prep plant, but it would also be used as a sediment pond for the surface mining operations.

This expansion of mining around Marsh Fork horrified some parents and the members of the citizen group Coal River Mountain Watch. The group has spoken with a worker who helped construct the dam. He details violations in construction that compromise the compaction of the dam face. This miner fears that an 80-by-40-foot section of the dam remains unstable to this day. The blasting associated with mountaintop-removal coal mining could possibly weaken the dam face and the impoundment floor.

In addition, several teachers and students report headaches and asthma (in at least one case, relieved when the student was transferred to a different school). Some, including teenage former students, have either contracted or died from cancer.

Coal River Mountain Watch worked to draw attention to the problem, holding local rallies, talking with the media, collecting 800 signatures on a petition, and contacting state agencies as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has an ongoing investigation. On June 15, 2004, EPA arrived to start an investigation focused on the sludge dam, the prep plant, the coal-loading silo behind the school, the blasting, and all related mining activities near the school. The investigation is apparently ongoing.

However, Stephanie Timmermeyer of the state Department of Environmental Protection, insists that Massey is doing everything according to the regulations and that the dam poses no threat to the schoolchildren.

The DEP did note that the state Division of Health and Human Resources’ cancer registry determined that the area around the school does have a high rate of cancer, but that was due to tobacco use and old age. Coal River Mountain Watch followed up with Pat Colsher at the health agency. She said that, yes, the Sundial area is a cancer cluster, but no one could determine if it was tobacco-related or age-related without a thorough investigation. Coal River has since written two letters to Ms Colsher, asking for that thorough investigation, suggesting she obtain a roster of the school for the past 15 years, attempt to track down those folks and determine what health issues they may have. She has not responded.

Coal River also contacted [former] Gov. Wise about the situation. Timmermeyer responded for Wise, again stating that all the chemicals used at the mine site are approved by the EPA. A Coal River volunteer reminded the DEP chief that all chemicals used in the United States are approved by the EPA, including household cleaners — but that does not mean that your kid should inhale a bottle of Mr Clean.

Coal River Mountain Watch has contacted every agency it can think of, but the group just seems to get the runaround. The group, along with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and concerned citizens from Mingo County, has formed the Sludge Safety Project to work together for the implementation of safety measures for this and other coal-sludge impoundments looming above schools and communities.

Fortunately, coal-sludge impoundments are not necessary. Some coal companies are already using alternative, dry methods to dispose of coal waste. These methods are currently more expensive than ponds. However, considering that public health and safety are at stake, the extra cost is more than worth it.

Please visit the Sludge Safety Project Web site ( to learn more about our efforts.

What is a Coal Sludge Impoundment?

What is a Coal Sludge Impoundment?

Coarse waste rock is used to construct the dam at Brushy Fork
Coarse waste rock is used to construct the dam at Brushy Fork

Before being transported to market, coal must be washed to separate it from the surrounding soil and rock–the more impurities a company can remove from coal, the higher its market value and the lesser the transportation costs. The washing process generates huge volumes of liquid waste, while the mining process generates millions of tons of solid waste. The cheapest way for coal companies to deal with some of this waste is by constructing dams from the solid mining refuse (that is, rocks and soil) to impound the liquid waste. (In mountaintop removal coal mining, some of the solid refuse is dumped directly into valleys). Coal companies usually build these dams in the heads of hollows (valleys), close to their coal processing plants.

The dams and impounded slurry or sludge are often euphemistically referred to as “ponds,” but “toxic lake” is the accurate name, as coal sludge impoundments can store billions of gallons of liquid coal waste.

Coal companies say the sludge contains mostly water, rocks and mud.  But sludge contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal. It also contains toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel.

Marfork Coal Co.'s (Massey Energy) massive Brushy Fork impoundment near Whitesville, WV, is designed to hold 9 BILLION gallons of sludge.
Marfork Coal Co.’s (Massey Energy) massive Brushy Fork impoundment near Whitesville, WV, is designed to hold 9 BILLION gallons of sludge.