Appalachian Voices
Water Quality Specialist Erin Savage takes samples at a coal slurry spill in Fields Creek, Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices.

Coal Slurry Catastrophes Continue: West Virginia Hit With Another Environmental Emergency

Feb. 19, 2014
Coal slurry leak in West Virginia turns a creek into sludge. Water quality specialists taking samples from Fields Creek. Cleanup continues from earlier spill that contaminated drinking water for 300,000 West Virginia residents. Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina attributed to a leaking storm water pipe. Up to 82,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of tainted water spilled into the Dan River.

A coal slurry line ruptured at the Kanawha Eagle Prep Plant near Winifrede sometime between midnight and 5:30 a.m. on Feb. 11, sending more than 100,000 gallons of slurry into Fields Creek. Workers at the plant shut down the slurry pumps when the leak was discovered.

A pipe that carries coal slurry from the Kanawha Eagle Prep Plant in Kanawha County to an adjacent settling pond burst, causing the spill. It was reported to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) by the company at 7:30 a.m., and later that day began to reach the Kanawha River, some 3.5 miles away from the site of the spill.

Coal slurry or sludge is a waste fluid produced by washing coal with water and chemicals prior to shipping the coal to market.  When coal is mined underground or by highwall or auger miners, there are significant amounts of rocks and clays mixed in.  These materials must be removed before the coal can be sold to power plants or steel mills. 

DEP is investigating the spill and overseeing the cleanup, and Kanawha Eagle is under an Imminent Harm Cessation Order, issued by the WVDEP soon after the spill, for creating conditions not allowable in state waters. The order, which halts all work at the prep plant, except for cleanup activities, will remain in effect until the company has eliminated the potential for further pollution.

Two water quality specialists with Appalachian Voices visited the site of the coal slurry spill, taking water quality samples and photographs of the scene. Matt Wasson director of programs, who has a Ph.D. in ecology from Cornell University, and Erin Savage, a water quality specialist, who has her M.E.Sc. from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, said the lack of enforcement of the coal industry is to blame for three recent hazardous spills in West Virginia and North Carolina.

“A spill of a chemical used by the coal industry, a coal ash spill and now a coal slurry spill – the common denominator here is the glaring lack of enforcement of the coal industry which has enjoyed political cover for far too long,” said Savage.

In Appalachia and the Illinois Basin, coal companies use a process called "wet washing" to reduce the amount of non-combustible material.  There are other methods of separating coal and non-coal used in other places, primarily where mining occurs in arid areas with limited water supplies. In a wet washing plant, or coal preparation plant, the raw coal is crushed and mixed with a large amount of water, magnetite and organic chemicals.  The chemicals are primarily patented surfactants, designed to separate clays from the coal, and flocculants, designed to make small particle clump together. 

The huge volume of waste water left over is coal slurry.  The slurry is composed of particles of rock, clay and coal too small to float or sink as well as all the chemicals used to wash the coal.  While the coal industry likes to claim that the particles of "natural rock strata" and chemicals are perfectly safe, testing has shown coal slurry to be highly toxic.

“The coal industry prefers to talk about a supposed ‘war on coal,’ but these spills remind Americans why we have environmental rules and why we need much stronger enforcement to keep our water safe,” said Wasson.

Bad News Comes in Threes

This is the third significant coal-related water pollution event in the southeast in the past six weeks. On Jan. 9, near Charleston, W.Va., a tank holding crude MCHM, a chemical used to prepare coal for combustion, failed, dumping about 10,000 gallons of the toxic chemical into the Elk River just a few miles upstream of a major drinking water intake; a federal emergency was issued and 300,000 people were told not to use their tap water for drinking, bathing or cooking.

On Jan. 25, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin ordered Freedom Industries to begin, by March 15, the process of dismantling, removing and properly disposing of all of its above ground storage tanks, as well as associated piping and machinery, at its Etowah River Terminal in Charleston. Tomblin’s directive was included in Consent Order 8034 issued by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and signed by Freedom Industries. The Etowah River Terminal, located on the Elk River, is the site of the Jan. 9 chemical spill that leaked crude MCHM from a storage tank into the Elk River.

The facility currently has 17 tanks, including three tanks that contained crude MCHM. The tank that leaked and caused the resulting spill also contained the chemical PPH. All three of those tanks are now empty. Materials in the remaining 14 tanks include calcium chloride and glycerin. All 17 tanks are located within inadequate secondary containment areas that allowed materials to spill into the Elk River.

On Feb. 3, in Eden, N.C., a large pipe under a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy ruptured, sending up to 82,000 tons of ash and 27 million gallons of tainted water into the Dan River about 23 miles upstream of the water intake for the city of Danville, Va.

Water quality specialists from Appalachian Voices, including Wasson as well as Amy Adams, N.C. campaign coordinator and former regional supervisor for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and Eric Chance, a water quality specialist with a B.S. in forestry from Virginia Tech, arrived at the North Carolina spill shortly after it happened.

North Carolina Division of Water Quality Employees taking reference water samples upstream of the spill.

“This is a massive disaster. For two miles downstream, the river is dark and thick, a milky gray. It’s just eerie. The ash has apparently reached about 20 miles downstream to Danville,” said Wasson.

The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources ordered Duke Energy on Feb. 18 to immediately halt discharges of material from a leaking 36-inch stormwater pipe beneath the coal ash basin in Eden where another stormwater pipe failed and caused a spill of coal ash into the Dan River.

DENR issued the order after initial tests the state agency conducted indicated the presence of elevated levels of arsenic. The elevated levels of arsenic are one of the key indicators of the presence of coal ash. DENR identified the unauthorized discharge during its ongoing investigation of the coal ash spill at the Dan River power plant in Eden.

“Given what we’ve seen, we’re concerned that this second stormwater pipe on site may also be leaking water contaminated with coal ash pollutants into the Dan River,” said Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources. “As such, we are ordering Duke Energy to eliminate this unauthorized discharge immediately.” 

The agency said it will evaluate this most recent violation in connection with all pending enforcement actions related to the coal ash spill. The state agency will conduct additional sampling in order to characterize the impacts of this discharge to water quality in the Dan River.

DENR staff remains concerned about the cumulative impacts of coal ash on the Dan River and its possible long-term effects on aquatic life.

“This spill illustrates why no coal ash ponds should be allowed to remain unlined,” said Adams, who once was a supervisor with DENR. “Although Duke has started using dry ash storage in lined landfills at some of its sites, many active and retired coal plants still have wet coal ash storage in large impoundments without liners. Add to that an aging system of stormwater collection pipes discharging directly to surface waters that provide drinking water downstream, and you have a recipe for disaster. It was just a matter of time.”

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