The coal industry will back a requirement for emergency action plans at slurry impoundments where a break would cause flooding that could kill downstream residents.
The decision is a break from the industry's past stance and should make it easier to require such plans for scores of impoundments, mostly in Eastern Kentucky, that are rated as highly hazardous.
That would also help protect people who live nearby, according to some who have pushed the state to require emergency plans.
"I think that's great news," said Stephanie McSpirit, an Eastern Kentucky University professor who began lobbying for emergency plans after a slurry impoundment failed in Martin County in October 2000.
That break flooded creeks and bottom land with more than 300 million gallons of sludge-like coal waste, threatening water supplies and killing millions of fish. No people were killed or injured.
The move to require emergency action plans for coal-slurry impoundments will not deal with facilities that store coal ash, which has been in the news lately because of the failure of a large ash containment structure in Tennessee on Dec. 22.
Slurry is a mix of water and fine particles of coal, rock and clay left from washing coal soon after it is mined. Coal ash is what's left after coal is burned to generate electricity.
Emergency action plans spell out procedures for notifying authorities if a dam fails or is about to fail. The federal template for such plans also calls for mapping the area that would be flooded in a break, as well as evacuation details.
Dam-safety advocates have long preached about the need for regulators to require such plans for dams, especially those where a failure could cause deaths.
However, Kentucky remains one of about 10 states that do not require dam owners to develop emergency action plans for the structures, according to the Association of State Dam Safety Officials.
Legislative proposals to require emergency action plans for all high-hazard potential dams in Kentucky have failed several times since the Martin County disaster, most recently last year.
A change of position
In the Martin County dis aster, the bottom of the impoundment — not the dam — failed, letting coal waste and water drain into underground mine tunnels and then out into two watersheds.
Residents complained afterward that they were not notified of the massive spill for hours. Some contended that, if the waste had been confined to one creek, not two, the black tide would have been high enough to kill people downstream.
The coal industry did not fight previous legislative proposals, but contended that the requirement to implement emergency plans should apply to all high-hazard dams, not just slurry impoundments, said Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
The broader proposal proved difficult to pass, however. There might have been concerns about the cost to owners of developing the plans, said state Rep. Robin Webb, D-Grayson, who sponsored a resolution calling for emergency action plans.
Caylor said the coal industry decided to change its position and support a requirement for emergency plans applying only to coal-waste impoundments.
"We recognize the need. It's the right thing to do," Caylor said.
Federal regulators have started requiring such plans in Western Kentucky and could begin doing so in the eastern end of the state, Caylor said.
Most coal companies have already developed plans on what to do if their impoundment fails, Caylor said.
The industry also realized it would be difficult for state lawmakers to require emergency plans for all dams at a time when the state and local governments are strapped for money, he said.
64 high-hazard sites
People who have been pushing for emergency plans for dams applauded the coal industry's move to support a measure applying only to its slurry impoundments.
"I think it is significant," said Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council.
There are 64 coal-slurry impoundments in the state, most of them in Eastern Kentucky, that are rated as having a high hazard potential, said Trey Hieneman, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources.
The hazard ratings on dams aren't based on how likely they are to fail, but rather on the potential for damage if they do.
Any dam where a failure would be likely to kill people or cause serious damage to houses, businesses or important facilities such as major roads is classified as high hazard, even if the dam is sound.
The state inspects about 400 water dams that are rated high- or moderate-hazard. They are scattered across the state and have a variety of owners, including cities and government agencies, home owners' associations, golf courses and even farmers.
Different state agencies inspect coal-waste impoundments and water reservoirs.
The resolution Caylor said the industry will support directs state authorities to draft regulations requiring coal companies to develop emergency action plans for high-hazard potential slurry impoundments.
It's not clear exactly what the regulations will include, Caylor said.
One question, for instance, is whether the rule would require detailed mapping of the area that would be flooded in case of a breach.
Webb said she would sponsor the measure requiring emergency plans for coal impoundments in the legislative session that begins Tuesday. State Sen. Ray Jones II might sponsor a companion proposal in the Senate, as he did in 2007, Webb said.