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.

Powder River Basin Coal Mines – Stunning Air Photos

A few days ago we posted some maps and images to show how the export of coal mined here in the U.S. to the Asian market would ramp up the impact on Western landscapes and habitat in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.  Our friend Chris Boyer at Kestrel Aerial Services just sent us a link to their image gallery of stunning, super-crisp low altitude aerial photos of mining operations there, to give you a nitty-gritty feel for what we mean when we say “impact.”  Here’s an example:

Coal mine in Powder River Basin. Air photo by Chris Boyer / Kestrel Aerial Services – all rights reserved. Click here to see more.


Growing Coal Mines in the Powder River Basin

Lately coal export has been getting a lot of attention in the media. Exporting coal from the US to overseas markets means an increase coal mining activity and an increase in train traffic through communities between the mines and coastal export terminals. Last fall, I blogged about the massive 7,500 foot long coal trains, to get a feel for how this might disrupt those communities. This time around, we are taking a look at the “business end” of coal-export: the actual mining of the coal.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) is concerned about what coal export means for the landscapes and habitats of the Rocky Mountain West. They asked if we could produce a few visualizations to illustrate how much of the land is being affected by mining, and would likely be affected if we ramp up coal exports.


Outline of the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming.  Black Thunder Mine shown in red. All other mines shown in orange.

Using Google Earth Pro, I delineated all of the mining activity in the Powder River Basin (PRB) of Wyoming and Montana, the main coal-producing region in the Rockies that would feed the export market.  I then imported the file into ArcGIS. There, I placed the mining activity over a map of the US, and created an inset map to show a closer view of a heavily mined area (see map above) about 40 miles south of Gillette, Wyoming. I homed in on the Black Thunder Mine (shown in red) to demonstrate how mining activity in the PRB has increased over time. Seen below, is the mine as it appears on black-and-white aerial survey photography shot in 1995.  The lighter areas on the image show the bare dirt and rock of actively mined areas. The red outline shows how much land had been directly impacted by mining sixteen years later, in 2011. It has grown 29.3 square miles in that 16-year period.

The Black Thunder Mine, located in the Wyoming section of the PRB, as of 1995. The lighter areas represent active mining area on this black-and-white aerial survey photography. The red outline represents the extent of mining activity as of 2011. 


 The Black Thunder Mine, located in the Wyoming section of the PRB in Wyoming, as of 2011 (color aerial survey photography).

But numbers alone don’t fully convey how big this coal-mining activity is throughout the PRB.  Let’s compare it with something more familiar in scale to many of us. Below is a map of San Francisco for reference. We’ll call this the “before” shot:

Map of San Francisco, California.

Thanks to fellow intern Patrick — who helped figure out how to move the footprint of the mine from Wyoming to California — I’ve provided a map of the Black Thunder Mine superimposed on San Francisco (shown below) as a more familiar frame of reference… The “after” shot:

The Black Thunder Mine, from the PRB, superimposed onto a topographic map of San Francisco, CA.

Remember, this is just one of the huge mining complexes that already exist in the PRB.  So how much of our Western high-plains landscape is currently impacted by mining? And how much is that likely to grow, especially if we start systematically exporting our coal to foreign countries?  I’d already delineated the existing mine footprints on the 2011 Google Earth imagery. I then collected GIS data from state agencies in Montana and Wyoming for all the current mining permits in the PRB.  The permits show the area where mining operations have been approved by state regulators, so it’s likely most if not all of that area will ultimately be impacted.

Below is a graph that neatly expresses how large the mined area in the PRB is compared to San Francisco– and more astoundingly, how large the mines may grow. If all the currently permitted areas were used to the full extent for coal mining and coal mining related activity, that would double the area of disturbed land, big enough to swallow up ten San Franciscos!  Exporting coal will speed up the mining and make this much more likely to happen.  This analysis doesn’t attempt to predict the additional coal leasing and new mine permitting that would probably be driven by exporting coal.

Area of land in the Powder River Basin affected by coal mining activity vs. the area of San Francisco, CA (sq miles).


Coal-Train Derailments and Record-High Temperatures. Related?

In the past 2 weeks, there were 4 different coal train derailments in the United States. On Wednesday, June 27 a Union Pacific coal train derailed near Junction City, in northeastern Kansas, overturning or crushing 23 rail cars.  The train was en route to Memphis from a mine in Colorado, according to this report.

On Monday, July 2, a BNSF Railway Co. coal train originating from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming headed for British Columbia derailed near Mesa, Washington, sending 31 train cars full of coal tumbling across an interstate railroad thoroughfare.

On Wednesday, July 4 in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, another train derailed, sending 28 coal cars off the tracks, causing an 86-foot long railway bridge to collapse onto a passenger vehicle, killing 2 people. According to this report from the Chicago Tribune, this train was en route to a utility plant in Wisconsin from a coal mine in eastern Wyoming.

Later that evening, yet another coal train derailment occurred in Pendelton, Texas — this time sending 43 BNSF cars flying off the tracks and causing hundreds of tons of coal to be strewn everywhere. This quote from the Temple Daily Telegram is pretty powerful:  “What people see in the sky that looks like smoke is actually coal dust” – Trooper Shawn Andersen, TX Department of Public Safety. Think coal dust isn’t a big problem? Think again.

What the heck is going on? What’s causing these derailments? Is it the record high temperatures?

Below is a list of the temperatures for each location on the day when each derailment occurred thanks to

6/27 Junction City, Kansas 107º F
7/2  Mesa, Washington 90º F
7/4 Pendleton, Texas 97º F
7/4 Northbrook, Illinois 103º F

In this July, 2010 article from PBS Newshour, multiple days of high temps can cause ‘heat kinks’, spots where the tracks get so hot they expand into wave-like shapes. According to this blog from St. Louis’ KMOV, areas on tracks that expand from the heat are referred to as ‘sun kinks’. Call them what you want to call them. These kinks, when left unchecked, can result in derailments. That’s what possibly happened just this past weekend in Washington, DC to the Metro Green Line from Greenbelt, Maryland into the District. This passenger train derailment happened at 4:45 on Friday July 6, prime rush hour. Luckily, there were no injuries, because when there is extreme heat, the Metro DC trains operate under heat restrictions that limit their speed. These restrictions cause delays and inconveniences for some passengers, but slower train travel means less chance of accident. Were there any heat advisories in place in those towns that might have prevented those coal trains from derailing?

SkyTruth intern Yolandita blogged about visualizing local impacts of coal exports to Asia, using all sorts of Google tools, and the finished product [video] was quite an eye-opener for many readers. The daily average would have 930,000 tons of coal being transported every day from Wyoming to Washington. That’s 60 coal trains per day.  And in just the past two weeks we’ve had 4 coal train derailments. Tita’s work shows what a 137-car coal train will look like passing through small towns. Most of the time these massive trains get from point A to point B with little or no trouble. But as we’ve seen this month, sometimes they don’t:

Train derailment in Mesa, Wahington –  July 2, 2012
Photo courtesy of Tony Eveland/Tri-County Herald


Visualizing Elevation Change: Mountaintop Removal Mining

Here at SkyTruth, we are always looking for new ways to visualize the environmental impact of human activity, so we’ve been playing with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) data and digital elevation models (DEMs). We thought it would be interesting, and potentially useful, to create a profile of the terrain of a mine before and after mining activity.  I’ve started with the controversial Spruce No.1 mountaintop removal coal mine in Logan County, West Virginia as my test subject.

Topography of the Spruce No.1 mine in Logan County, WV, in 2010.

Google Earth imagery showed that significant mining activity had occurred between 2003 and 2011.  I retrieved a digital elevation model (DEM) of the mine location that shows what the topography looked like  in 2003, from the WV GIS Technical Center.  This elevation dataset was created from aerial survey photography that was flown in 2003.  I then downloaded LiDAR data that was collected over the area in 2010 from WV View and converted the LiDAR to a DEM using ArcGIS.  Next, I calculated the difference in elevation between the two DEMs; in other words, the change in elevation over that 7-year period.

In the slide show below, I have provided hill shades of the DEMs to better visualize the difference. I color coded the areas affected by mountaintop removal (blue) and the areas affected by valley fill (yellow) and overlaid the color coded DEM over the hill shades of the mine in 2003 and 2010. I have also created a profile graph of the elevation along two cross sections before and after mining activity. After analyzing all these results, I have found that 7.4 million cubic meters of rock was removed by way of mountain top removal mining and 9.8 million cubic meters of rock has filled what once was a valley.  (Why the difference?  The fill has a lot of gaps and spaces, so it’s not as compact as the original, mined bedrock.)