Another spill: this time it’s coal sludge in West Virginia

by Jason Schwartz

February 12, 2014

Debris and cenospheres float on the surface of the Clinch River downstream from the Tennessee Valley Authority's Kingston Fossil Plant one year after a million gallons of toxic coal fly ash slurry contaminated land and water in the region.

© Wade Payne / Greenpeace

Not again. West Virginians woke up yesterday to reports of a whole new spill of toxic, coal-industry waste in their water. This time100,000 gallons of coal slurryhas fouledFields Creek in Kanawha County. Slurry, commonly referred to as sludge, is a byproduct of coal mining and preparation. It is brimming with carcinogens, toxins, and heavy metals. Patriot Coal is on the hook for this one. Can any of these companies run their facilities correctly? 2014 started with last months spill in West Virginia, in which the drinking water of more than 300,000 people was poisoned by MCHM, a chemical used to wash coal. That spill, caused by the sheer negligence of Freedom Industries, was an early reminder of just how irresponsible, unhealthy, and outdated our reliance on coal continues to be. Then last week, Duke Energy let the contents of a retention pondup to 82,000 tons of coal ashspill into North Carolina's Dan River, threatening ecosystems and drinking water.
In both of those cases, the slow, bumbling, sheisty, shady, obfuscating reaction of coal companies and paid-off regulators provoked crises of confidence among regular people, who just want to know if their families are going to be OK.
Now it's sludge? Really? On Tuesday, a pipe burst at Patriot Coal's Kanawha Eagle facility sometime between 2:30 and 5:30 PMthe alarm was broken so it took awhile for people to notice. The sludge jumped two containment walls and seeped into the stream, turning the water black.
Defying laws that require companies to report spills immediately, Patriot Coal didnt notify the West Virginia Dept. of Environmental Protection until the next morning.
Even when Patriot finally started coming clean, it was still misreporting the contents of the slurry. Officials made claims that one component of their sludge was MCHM. But actually, the company had stopped using the chemical at that facility. It sounds like a simple blunder, but its not. Immediately following the spill Patriot and DEP were testing for MCHM and telling everybody they saw no signs of it. Obviously! The question is, what were they NOT testing for? And that telltale shadiness was in full effect. After Jimmy Gianato, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management said the spill turned out to be much of nothing, the Secretary of the West Virginias DEP had to step in and correct him. This is a significant spill, he said.
When this much slurry goes into a stream, it wipes the stream out.
The disregard for safety that Patriot has shownand that Big Coal has always shownis not surprising. But that doesnt mean it isnt disgusting. Perhaps there is a bright side to all of this: we're all getting a lesson on the many different ways coal can poison our water.

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