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Slurry dam construction integrity questioned

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A new report by federal surface mine regulators obtained by the Sludge Safety Project indicates there are some concern about the way West Virginia coal slurry dams are built.

The concerns indicated by the one-page executive summary of the Office of Surface Mining study, titled "Oversight Report of Compaction of Coal Mine Waste Slurry Impoundment Embankments Evaluation Year 2011," points out four different observations.

The findings indicated materials that compact only at a narrow range of moisture content, coal wastes arrive at the impoundment in a wet condition, operators typically add material in possible non-ideal weather conditions and compaction equipment used is designed for compaction.

"In most cases, the reported compaction equipment is one or more dozers," the report states. "Dozers are not designed to compact soil. The tracks are designed to allow the dozer to operate on loose ground."

The study was designed to test the ability of operators to "consistently able to be adequately compact the coarse refuse under conditions that would appear to be adverse." The materials are intended to settle and compact, failure to do so could threaten the integrity of the slurry dam.

According to the report, OSM engineers had observed consultants recording passing test results, though visual observations "indicate the material may not be adequately compacted."

"Results of the testing tend to indicate that the coarse refuse is not consistently being compacted in accordance with approved specifications," the report states. "Failing field density tests occurred at all seven of the sites investigated."

According to the report, of the 73 field density tests spread over seven sites, only 16 tests passed.

"These results indicate the quality control methods used during embankment construction may not be achieving the desired results," the report states.

According to the Associated Press, an OSM representative said there is no indication there has been any sign of imminent danger of failure at any of the sites.

The failure of coal slurry dams can have devastating results. The failure of a dam filled with the liquid coal wastes sent more than 300 million gallons of slurry into in Martin County, Ky. in October 2000.

The owner of that pond, Massey Energy, spent millions trying to restore the health of the two Tug Fork River tributaries.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection is reviewing the information, but has not yet responded to comment. A group of citizens who obtained the document are having a press conference Thursday morning.