Deadly Weekend in West Virginia Mining Operations

(UPDATE: 12/7/12 at 11:47 a.m.)

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has now listed the Robinson Run Mine 95 coal slurry pond accident a fatality.  According to the preliminary report, the operator of a Caterpillar D6 bulldozer was pulled into the wastewater impoundment when the bank collapsed beneath him and two other miners working on expanding one of the dams. The WV Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) has released this archive image of the site, indicating the area of the incident.

Source: WV State Journal/WV  DEP

According to Jake Sapadaro of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, the improvement work involved building on top of wet slurry inside the pond, and bears similarities to the Buffalo Creek Disaster of 1972. As the bank failure was internal and only impacted a planned expansion, there does not appear to be any threat to the existing dam integrity. However, it should be noted that this facility holds approximately 1.6 billion gallons of wastewater, 11.6 times more than the Buffalo Creek pond which claimed 118 lives when 138 million gallons of black sludge burst through the containment dam after a heavy rain event.

ORIGINAL STORY: (12-3-12 at 6:13 p.m)

On Friday, two separate coal mine accidents claimed the life of a southern West Virgina coal miner, sent two engineers to the hospital, and left a fourth missing. The first incident occurred at 1:30 am at the Pocahontas Mine A White Buck Portal in Greenbrier County, WV, where Steven O’Dell, 27, of Mount Nebo was caught between a scoop and a continuous mining machine. Based on our observations of area, we believe the mine depicted below is the operation in question*. While there appears to be significant surface mining, the equipment involved and other sources suggest that the accident occurred underground. 



According to news reports and our assessment of the region near Leivasy, WV, we believe this operation is the Pocahontas Mine A, operated by White Buck Coal Company, a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. 
The second incident remains a developing story, where a bulldozer and two pickup trucks slid into a coal slurry impoundment pond on Friday afternoon as the embankment collapsed beneath them. The cause of the collapse remains unknown, but U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) spokeswoman Amy Louviere stated that the preparation plant suffered a “massive failure.” Two engineers who fell into the coal processing waste pond were rescued immediately and treated at the hospital, but the operator of the bulldozer remains missing. The bulldozer was located on Saturday evening with sonar, but it is unclear from reports if divers have been able  go down in due to ongoing issues with bank stability and the  thickness of the coal slurry. 


Located near Haywood, WV, this appears to be the coal slurry pond where one West Virginia mine worker remains missing and two were transported to the hospital following an embankment collapse. 

Coal slurry is a by-product of washing the coal to improve its efficiency in power generation, but is both toxic and potentially lethal if containment ponds fail. The Buffalo Creek Flood of 1972 is the most tragic example of pond failures, claiming 118 lives and damaging over $50 million in property. We remain very concerned about the threat that coal waste ponds represent to their downstream neighbors, and will be following this story as it develops. Because of the thick, viscous nature of the sludge, officials were draining the 12 foot deep pond as of Sunday to in order to proceed with the  search for the missing bulldozer operator. 



Throughout the history of coal mining in Appalachia, waste ponds have been placed close to the mines and preparation plants to reduce the costs of disposal. They can, however, pose significant risk to those downstream, such as these houses immediately below of one of two earthen embankments. 


Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who have suffered loss from these tragic accidents.




*The exact location of mines and facilities can be difficult to confirm since street addresses usually refer to corporate offices, but we are fairly confident these images are accurate. These sites are the only features that match the criteria listed in the reports. If, however, you know differently, we welcome your assistance pinpointing the exact location of these incidents.

UPDATE: Based on images from the DEP, we now are confident in our identification of the Nolan’s Run Impoundment/Robinson Mine No. 95 operated by Consol Energy.
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