Health and Safety Issues

In 2002, the incidences of injuries and fatalities at coal preparation facilities were similar to coal mining, and 0.2 per 1000 workers, respectively [14]; however, the largest impact of coal cleaning facilities is on the environment.

Coal waste facilities have been involved in several accidents or incidents over the last 30 years. The dramatic failure on Buffalo Creek in West Virginia in 1972 revealed the hazards associated with embankments. Prior to this accident, little consideration was given to the control of water entering an impoundment from a preparation plant or as runoff or to the discharge of contaminated effluent to the stream system. The accident in West Virginia, which occurred when a coal waste impounding structure collapsed on a Buffalo Creek tributary, resulted in a flood that killed 125 people; injured 1100 people; left more than 4000 people homeless; demolished 1000 cars and trucks, 502 houses, and 44 mobile homes; damaged 943 houses and mobile homes; and caused $50 million in property damages [21]. At the time of the accident, no federal standards required either impoundments or hazardous refuse piles to be constructed and maintained in an approved manner. This situation changed, however, as a result of this accident, and numerous federal and state statutes and regulations now apply to the disposal of coal waste impoundments. The Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration developed standards for impoundments and refuse piles, and nearly every coal waste facility is subject to regulatory requirements imposed by MSHA, OSHA, or the state with a regulatory program approved under the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act of 1977 [21].

Although the industry has become more regulated, there still have been some embankment failures since 1972 [21]. These failures have been less significant than the Buffalo Creek incident in that the quantity of slurry released, damage occurring, injuries, and loss of life (1 person) have not been as great. A notable exception is the October 2000 impoundment failure near Inez, Kentucky, in which a 7-acre surface impoundment failed and approximately 250 million gallons of slurry were released into a nearby underground coal mine. The slurry flowed through the mine and into nearby creeks and rivers, flooding stream banks to a depth of 5 feet [21]. No loss of life was experienced; however, the environmental impact was significant, and local water supplies that were taken from the rivers were disrupted for days. This incident resulted in Congress requesting the National Research Council to examine ways to reduce the potential for similar accidents in the future [21]. The National Research Council appointed the Committee on Coal Waste Impoundments to:

• Examine engineering practices and standards currently being applied to coal waste impoundments;

• Evaluate the accuracy of mine maps and explore ways to improve surveying and mapping of underground mines to determine how underground mines relate to current or planned slurry impoundments;

• Evaluate alternative technologies that could reduce the amount of coal waste generated or allow productive use of the waste;

• Examine alternative disposal options for coal slurry.

The committee offered many conclusions and recommendations. The implementation of these recommendations should substantially reduce the potential for uncontrolled release of coal slurry from impoundments [21].

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