The federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation has released the results of an analysis of West Virginia coal mine impoundments which could have implications for Kentucky.
A mine impoundment is usually a large pool on a mine site that holds the chemical and metal-laden waste—or slurry—that’s left over after coal is washed and processed. It’s liquid, and there have been instances when the ponds have collapsed into abandoned underground mines with disastrous consequences. This has happened three times in Virginia over the past 17 years, and in Martin County, Kentucky in 2000.
In the report released today in West Virginia, OSM revealed that the practice of allowing mine operators to use underground mine maps to plan where they put slurry impoundments is seriously flawed. They found that often the underground mine maps aren’t accurate—and therefore create a possibility that the slurry impoundment is placed too close to the underground mine workings and there’s a potential for the impoundment to break through.
“Mine maps are not totally reliable, so some of these major decisions shouldn’t rely solely on mine maps until you can verify the accuracy of these mine maps,” said West Virginia OSM director Roger Calhoun.
Kentucky also uses mine maps to determine whether it’s safe to build a slurry impoundment.
Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman Dick Brown emailed this statement:
The Kentucky Division of Mine Permits reviews underground mine maps, drilling plans, maps submitted by the mining companies and other pertinent documentation to ensure that coarse refuse slurry impoundments are placed in an appropriate location. In fact, DMP does not rely solely on the maps, but will fully utilize all necessary tools to confirm locations. DNR has not seen the OSM report for West Virginia and cannot really comment on how it will affect Kentucky at this time.
OSM is conducting a systematic assessment of the process in several states, and a spokesman says Kentucky’s will be done in the next several years—as well as reports for Ohio, Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
UPDATE: I got this additional comment this morning from the Division of Mine Permits this morning:
DMP utilizes the underground mine maps as one tool among several for impoundment locations. These locations are determined on a case-by-case basis and DMP may require additional studies for their analysis if the submitted documentation fails to ensure public and environmental safety. Some instances may require horizontal and vertical drilling to confirm that the location is not problematic. Again, the mine maps are an integral part of the permitting process, but DMP does not rely on them solely.
While we cannot confirm that OSM gave DNR permission to use the mine maps in 2007, the fact that OSM awarded funding to our mapping program suggests that they felt they were a valuable tool to add to the review arsenal.