[Updated 12/19/2012 below]
The Charleston (WV) Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. continues to provide updates (here, here, and aerial photos) on efforts to locate a worker caught on Friday, Nov 30 in the collapse of a massive coal slurry embankment failure in Harrison County, WV. The worker was operating a bulldozer when part of the embankment failed; he and the vehicle submerged into the pond of coal fines and chemical-laden waste water. Two workers in pick-up trucks were also caught in the collapse, but they survived and are being treated for their injuries.
The coal slurry impoundment is owned by CONSOL Energy and is located near its Robinson Run coal preparation plant. The impoundment covers 788 acres and can hold more than 256 million gallons of coal slurry. The slurry is a hefty waste product of coal processing, and hundreds of these impoundments are located in coal-producing States.
West Virginia’s MetroNews reported that the location of the submerged bulldozer was identified on Saturday evening. Crews assembled platform barges to aid in the recovery and dive teams were called in.
“MSHA spokesperson Amy Louviere said divers would probably not go in Sunday. ‘The divers had no idea the material was this thick,’ Louviere said. …Dredges were also being assembled. That was expected to be a lengthy process. The company was also installing a pump to handle thicker sediment.”
The largest coal slurry impoundment failures in the U.S. occurred in October 2000 at Massey Energy’s Martin County, Kentucky site, and in February 1972 at Pittson Coal’s Dam #3 in Logan Country, West Virginia. The latter, known as the Buffalo Creek disaster, involved 132 million gallons of coal slurry that catastrophically flooded 16 downstream towns. The victims included 125 who were killed, more than 1,100 injured, and 4,000 left homeless. The 2000 Martin County disaster involved 250-300 million gallons of waste that flooded hundreds of miles of streams and rivers and burried parts of Inez, Kentucky under 7 feet of coal sludge. No one was killed by the immediate flood, but the coal slurry contaminated the water supply of an estimated 27,000 residents. Among other things, the Martin County disaster led to the development of a coal waste impoundment on-line database, managed by Wheeling Jesuit University, and a National Research Council (NRC) report entitled “Coal Waste Impoundments: Risks, Responses, and Alternatives.” The 2002 NRC’s report notes:
“Embankments can fail in a variety of ways, including slope instability, liquefaction, and foundation failure. Overtopping of an embankment can cause substantial erosion of the crest, which, if left uncontrolled, will work progressively downward, releasing water and coal refuse downstream.”
To-date, no information about the embankment failure or the injured and unaccounted for workers is offered on CONSOL’s website. Ken Ward Jr.’s updates include written statements provided by the company, including this one:
“CONSOL Energy anticipates that we will be in a position to provide further details of the plan on Wednesday and update you on progress to date. …Investigation into the cause of the accident will commence on Tuesday morning.”
[Update 12/19/2012: The body of Markel J. Koon, 58, was recovered from the coal slurry impoundment on December 14. He was a member of the United Mine Workers of America Local 1501, and an employee of CONSOL for nearly 38 years.]