An underground injection is a form of coal waste disposal whereby the coal sludge is mixed with water and pumped into abandoned underground mine workings. Once underground, the slurry can mix with water and migrate into nearby aquifers contaminating local water supplies with dangerous levels of heavy metals. In the heavily mined Appalachian coalfields, cracks often develop in old mines from subsidence or blasting from surface mines above them. Once the slurry injection has begun, there is no practical way to seal cracks or remove the slurry if there is a problem. The old mines can stretch for miles underground and billions of gallons of slurry can be injected at a single site. In some places, the slurry has been injected for over 30 years.
In at least two communities in West Virginia, there is extensive evidence that slurry injection has contaminated well water. In the Rawl area of Mingo County and the Seth-Prenter area of Boone County, billions of gallons of coal slurry were injected into abandoned mines near small communities that relied on well water. Residents of both communities watched their once pristine well water begin to run yellow, orange or black at times. Sinks, tubs, and clothes became permanently stained and all kinds of metal fixtures and appliances started corroding rapidly. Worse yet, sicknesses began to spread throughout the community from skin rashes and severe diarrhoea to cancer and kidney failure. Testing revealed iron, manganese, lead, aluminium, arsenic and other heavy metals, sometimes at hundreds of times the safe drinking water limits. Toxic amounts of hydrogen sulfide gas (that rotten egg smell) were also throughout homes. The Sludge Safety Project worked with both communities to secure municipal water line extensions. In both communities, hundreds of residents sued the companies for damage to their health and property.
Nobody knows when the practice of slurry injection first began, since initially there was no regulation of the practice. It was heavily used in Appalachia in the late 1970s and early 1980s when impoundments were difficult to build after the Buffalo Creek Disaster. The Safe Drinking Water Act gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to regulate underground injection and made unpermitted injection illegal in 1974. However, coal companies injected slurry illegally anyway. In 1984, the EPA caught Eastern Coal Company injecting illegally into a mine that was being used as a public water source in Pike County, Ky., by investigating a citizen complaint. The EPA ordered the injection stopped and began to try to regulate slurry injection. It wasn’t until 1999 that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) developed its own Underground Injection Control (UIC) office and “modern” regulation of slurry began.
The DEP says that groundwater is protected by requiring the slurry to be watered down to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards before it is injected. However, a DEP hydrologist admitted in a legislative hearing that the only reason that black coal slurry met Safe Drinking Water Act standards was that the standards did not cover the contaminants that make it black. The inadequate regulations that are in place are poorly enforced. Until recently, mining injections were overseen by a single person. In 2007, the Sludge Safety Project successfully lobbied the West Virginia Legislature to order a study of the impact of slurry injection on groundwater and human health. Despite being over-deadline, flawed, and inconclusive, the study revealed troubling facts about the UIC program. Every plant in the study had had a least one major slurry spill. The injectate at some plants was chronically in violations of the standards; plants were frequently using unapproved chemicals in the washing process, and monitoring of the mines getting injected into was inadequate or totally absent.
The problems were so severe that the DEP declared a temporary moratorium on new slurry injection permits and extensive changes to the regulations immediately upon releasing their report in the spring of 2009. Companies were required to test for many more contaminants and, for the first time, were required to regularly test the water in the mine receiving an injection and nearby groundwater for contamination. They also doubled the program staff to two people. Since the new regulations, the number of plants injecting slurry has been cut nearly in half with only around a half dozen left. The Sludge Safety Project continues to work to make the current moratorium permanent and phase-out of the remaining active injection sites.