Thursday, October 18, 2001

Company faulted in sludge spill

Report says it ignored trouble signs

The Associated Press

        PIKEVILLE, Ky. — The coal company that owned the mountaintop pond that spilled more than 300 million gallons of black goo on eastern Kentucky last year could have headed off the disaster, federal regulators said in a report released Wednesday.

        The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Martin County Coal Co. for failing to respond to indications that water and sludge were slowly leaking from the 70-acre impoundment into an underground mine beneath it.

        Investigators claim the company could have corrected the problem before it reached the magnitude of the Oct. 11, 2000, spill that marooned residents along Coldwater and Wolf creeks, killed fish, fouled drinking water, and inundated roads and bridges.

        Original estimates were that 250 million gallons of the mixture of coal particles and water spilled, but MSHA increased that figure to about 306 million gallons.

        MSHA cited the company for failing to spread a layer of fine coal particles around the perimeter of the 70-acre impoundment when it was built to prevent water from seeping out.

        The company, which has spent more than $40 million to clean up the spill, could be fined up to $110,000 for the two violations.

        Dave Lauriski, head of the federal agency, said MSHA also will conduct an internal review of the procedures used to approve coal mine impoundments.

        “In the end, we think the investigative team did a good job and produced a fair, accurate, tough report,” Mr. Lauriski said. “But I want us to review and improve the way we oversee these impoundments, and better manage the internal conflicts that marred the investigation earlier this year. Our goal must be to prevent these dangerous impoundment failures from happening in the future.”

        In April, Jack Spadaro, a veteran mine safety expert for MSHA in Beckley, W.Va., asked to be removed from the investigative team. Mr. Spadaro said the investigation would be a whitewash because the agency was not examining its own conduct, including what he contends is a failure to act on internal warnings about the pond that collapsed.

        Mr. Spadaro said he supplied the Labor Department's inspector general with 20 documents to support his allegations, including several MSHA memos that warned about the safety of the eastern Kentucky impoundment.

        In the report, MSHA said water seeped through underlying layers of coal dust, dirt and rock, cutting a channel that finally resulted in the sudden failure of the pond.

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