Today the Sludge Safety Project and concerned citizens held a press conference at the Charleston Field Office of the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to demand the data from a critical OSM study on the compaction of coal waste dams. Over a dozen community leaders and activists came out to voice their deep concerns about dam safety and demand agency transparency and an immediate moratorium on impoundment expansions. Speakers included retired UMWA preparation plant worker and longtime worker and community safety advocate Joe Stanley, Coal River Mountain Watch Co-Director Debbie Jarrell, lifelong resident of the Coal River Valley Freda Williams and Sludge Safety Project's Rob Goodwin.
In response to relentless citizen pressure, the OSM began a study of dam compaction in 2010 testing 7 dams across the state. The report was due to be released in the fall of 2011, but the WV Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) objected to the report. OSM agreed to delay the report's release and allow the DEP to conduct additional testing. Both citizens and journalists made repeated attempts to get the OSM's data via the Freedom of Information Act but were denied every time. The Sludge Safety Project obtained a copy of the draft Executive Summary. While none of the data was included, the summary conclusions are damning. According to the draft summary:
"Results of the testing tend to indicate that the coarse refuse is not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved specifications. Failing field density tests occurred at all seven of the sites investigated. Of 73 field density tests performed at the seven sites, only 16 yielded passing results. These results indicate the quality control methods used during embankment construction may not be achieving the desired results."
Over 75% of the tests failed. That is a completely unacceptable number. What's even more unacceptable is keeping the public in the dark about these critical issues of safety instead conducting an open investigation. Charleston OSM Director Roger Calhoun came out today and told the crowd that he absolutely would not release the data without the completed study and that they need more time. With all due respect to Mr. Calhoun, two years is too long to wait already for this critical information. We applaud the OSM for listening to citizens and conducting their own investigation and data collection on impoundment safety instead of relying on suspect industry consultants, like Geo/Environmental Associates. However, with suspect agencies like the WV DEP involved, the only way to ensure an accurate analysis happens is to make the data public so independent experts can form their own opinions.
We also need more than just studies, we need action. One of the seven dams with failing tests is the massive Brushy Fork sludge impoundment. Despite this evidence, MSHA regulators approved a 50 foot and two billion gallon expansion to the 750 foot tall and 6.6 billion gallon dam. However, the WVDEP must still approve it. That's why we are calling on the OSM to issue an immediate moratorium on dam expansions until this study can be completed. When thousands of lives are at risk, 99% sure just doesn't cut it.
Tragically, we were reminded again why impoundment safety issues are so important to coalfield communities last November. A worker was killed at a Harrison County, W.Va. impoundment when the embankment he was building collapsed at CONSOL Energy's Nolans Run Impoundment. The investigation into his death is not complete, but incidences like these continue to confirm our fears about the lax regulation of slurry impoundments. We will continue to pressure OSM to take the strongest possible actions to ensure community and worker safety.