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coal slurry in Fields Creek
Bales were set up to block coal slurry from flowing down Fields Creek in West Virginia after a spill Tuesday.
On Tuesday, a malfunctioning valve in an eight-inch pipeline operated by the Patriot Coal Corp. 16 miles south of Charleston, West Virginia, sent what one state official called a "significant" amount of toxic coal slurry into a local creek. Another official, however, said of the spill, "I don't think there's really anything to it. It turned out to be much of nothing." Later in the day, it was announced that as much as 108,000 gallons of the stuff had leaked. Even in the lax regulatory atmosphere of West Virginia, that's a bit more than a "much of nothing."

The eastern Kanawha County spill occurred in a six-mile stretch of Fields Creek, which runs into the Kanawha River. An unknown amount of the slurry reached the Kanawha, but it could be seen up to half a mile from where the creek and river connect. Unlike the 10,000-gallon spill of a coal-cleaning chemical from a storage tank last month into the Elk River, this one didn't reach drinking water supplies. Of humans, that is. The nearest intake for drinking water on the Kanawha is 95 miles away.

At the Charleston Gazette, Ken Ward Jr. and David Gutman reported:

"This has had significant, adverse environmental impact to Fields Creek and an unknown amount of impact to the Kanawha River," said Secretary Randy Huffman of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "This is a big deal, this is a significant slurry spill."

"When this much coal slurry goes into the stream, it wipes the stream out. [...]

There was an alarm system in place to alert facility operators of the broken valve, but the alarm failed, so pumps continued to send the toxic slurry through the system. There was a secondary containment wall around the valve, but with the pumps continuing to send slurry to the broken valve, it was soon overwhelmed and the slurry overflowed the wall and made its way to the creek.

Please read more about the spill below the fold.

Coal slurry is a combination of liquid and solid waste from the coal mining and preparation process. Slurry typically contains toxic metals such as manganese and selenium. Although it was first reported that the Crude MCHM, the chemical that was spilled January 9, was included in Tuesday's slurry spill, a Patriot Corp. official said late Tuesday that the company switched to another cleaning chemical, polypropylene glycol or polyethylene glycol, several weeks ago. The slurry contained a very small proportion of that, he said.

The worst coal slurry disaster occurred 42 years ago this month in West Virginia's Buffalo Creek Hollow when 132 million gallons of the stuff burst from a series of dams and killed 118 people, making another 4,000 homeless.

The Gazette reported that Tuesday's spill is the third reported slurry incident at Patriot's Kanawha Eagle operation since 2010. Last November, a spill resulted in a $663 fine. In October 2010, the company was assessed a $22,400 fine.

The DEP's Huffman told the reporters that these fines aren't enough to deter companies:

"A some point companies will just pay. We have to do more than that, we can't just send them a bill and say you have to pay this to continue operating, there have to be fundamental changes made at a facility that's had multiple incidents," Huffman said. "Maybe there needs to be a top down review of all their processes. Maybe there's a cultural change within that company that needs to take place that has more of an emphasis on safety, environmental controls, things like that."
Unless it's just chatter to distract the media, Huffman's comment seems to reflect a different attitude at DEP than has been the case there for years. The department has repeatedly ignored federal recommendations for major changes in state oversight of coal-related operations since 2008. In one of the recommendations four years ago from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the OSM stated, "It appears that the consequences for violating the law, even when the violations are intentional, willful and blatant, are not significant enough to be a deterrent."

No kidding.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Wed Feb 12, 2014 at 08:26 AM PST.

Also republished by Daily Kos.

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