Friday, October 27, 2000

W.Va. governor eyes dam studies

By Brian Farkas
The Associated Press

        CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Division of Environmental Protection was asked Thursday to create a task force to determine whether West Virginia's coal slurry ponds are at risk of failure.

        Gov. Cecil Underwood announced the task force after taking a helicopter tour of the Tug Fork and Big Sandy rivers, which have been contaminated by the release of 250 million gallons of sludge from a Kentucky coal waste pond.

[photo] A cleanup worker paddles a boat in the sludge-filled Coldwater Creek in eastern Kentucky this week.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
| ZOOM |
        The Oct. 11 release occurred when the bottom fell out of the 70-acre pond operated by Martin County Coal Co., a subsidiary of A.T. Massey Coal. Co.

        The sludge, which rushed into an abandoned underground mine and into two Tug Fork tributaries, has killed fish and fouled drinking water along 60 miles of the Kentucky-West Virginia border.

        “We have addressed the immediate needs of the people, and we now must look more critically at the integrity of coal dams in West Virginia and emergency preparedness,” Mr. Underwood said.

        “We are doing an inventory” on the 137 coal-related dams under permit in the state, said DEP spokesman Andy Gallagher.

        The agency expects to ask at least 11 people to serve on the task force. The group would represent government agencies, the coal industry and environmental groups, he said.

        The sludge release has become an issue in West Virginia's gubernatorial campaign.

        Earlier this week, independent gubernatorial candidate Denise Giardina challenged Mr. Underwood, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Rep. Bob Wise to take a stand on the issue.

        Ms. Giardina called the release an “environmental catastrophe.”

        “Bob knows firsthand from his work with the United Mine Workers the effects that can be associated with these slurry ponds,” said Wise spokesman Mike Plante. Mr. Wise worked with the union after a Logan County slurry dam gave way in Buffalo Creek in 1972. The resulting flood killed 125 people.

        “Clearly this is a significant environmental problem ... but it did not involve the same loss of life and catastrophic devastation” as Buffalo Creek, he said.


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