Sludge spill stirs concerns in Kentucky

cmullins@herald-leader.comDecember 24, 2008 

A day after a massive coal sludge break in Tennessee covered hundreds of acres in ashy waste, Kentucky environmentalists and leaders said they will continue pushing for legislation to require emergency action plans in case of similar failures in their state.

Monday's break in Tennessee released millions of yards of dark gray mud that toppled power lines, covered roads and railroad tracks and ruptured a gas line, according to The Associated Press. No one was seriously hurt.

The break occurred at a retention pond used by the Tennessee Valley Authority. The pond held the ash generated by the coal-burning Kingston Steam Plant in Harriman, about 50 miles west of Knoxville.

"This event in Tennessee should remind our legislators that the public is at serious risk," said Stephanie McSpirit, an associate professor of sociology at Eastern Kentucky University. "People living downstream from these types of impoundments need to be protected. Maybe this will be our final wake-up call."

Kentucky doesn't require emergency plans for its coal-company impoundments, where a break could kill people or cause significant damage to facilities such as schools and power substations, nor does it require such plans for nearly 400 water dams in the state that are rated as high or moderate hazards.

Environmentalists and Kentucky legislators began pushing to develop a system of monitoring such structures, as well as notifying residents when a break occurred, after a massive spill in Martin County in October 2000. Then, more than 300 million gallons of thick slurry broke through an impoundment near Inez, flooding miles of creeks, rivers and bottomland with black sludge.

No one was killed, but wildlife suffered and water systems as far away as Ashland were threatened.

While Martin County residents were upset about the damage to water supplies and fish from the spill, they also told a student-faculty research team from EKU, which was lead by McSpirit, that they should have received notice that the sludge was headed their way.

The spill began an effort to require emergency action plans for Kentucky, even though the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has recommended such plans for coal-slurry and water impoundments since 1994.

In addition, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and dam-safety experts for years have urged plans for all high- and moderate-hazard dams.

Dam-safety advocates say it's just common sense to make plans in case a dam fails.

"It is just a basic public-safety measure, especially given what has happened in Tennessee and Martin County and other places," McSpirit said. "Even in the Cumberland area and the Wolfe Creek Dam there, we have an issue with aging infrastructure and the people need to be protected."

But legislation proposed during the past two sessions to require such plans in Kentucky have failed.

One potential issue with the proposals has been the cost to dam owners. Detailed mapping of the area that could be flooded in a dam break would require engineering work, Hank List, deputy secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet, said Tuesday.

"There would be a sizable cost to all owners, from coal companies that own slurry impoundments, as well as local governments and farm owners," List said. "Nobody opposes the need for such a plan, but nobody could produce the thousands of dollars it would take."

However, state Sen. Ray Jones II, D-Pikeville, who filed a resolution during the last legislative session requiring emergency plans, said he will continue working with lawmakers in the next session to come up with a consensus.

"What eventually will happen, I'm afraid, is we will have a catastrophic failure, whether it be a coal slurry impoundment or a water dam, and at the present time we don't have a plan in place to handle it," Jones said.

Jones said many people live in communities with slurry impoundments and don't even realize it.

According to the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, there are 113 impoundments for slurry or water at coal operations in Kentucky, 91 of them rated as either a high or or a significant hazard.

In addition, there are 1,064 dams in Kentucky that the state inspects. Of those, 395 are high- or moderate-hazard dams.

The dams have a range of owners, including cities and government agencies, home owners' associations, golf courses and farmers.

The state Department for Natural Resources says none of the coal impoundments is in imminent danger of failing. The same is true for the water dams.

State inspectors have rated 70 of the 395 high- and moderate-hazard dams as deficient, but that doesn't mean they are unstable. Many deficiencies are relatively minor, such as needing to control animal burrows that could eventually threaten the stability of the dam.

However, the potential for failure can change quickly because of high rainfall or other factors.

Although they are still investigating an exact cause, officials in Tennessee think that heavy rains and freezing temperatures might be to blame for Monday's break.

Staff reporter Bill Estep contributed to this report.

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