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The Inez coal tailings dam failure (Kentucky, USA)

(last updated 18 Jan 2008)


The dam failure and its impacts

On Oct 11, 2000, a coal tailings dam of Martin County Coal Corporation's preparation plant near Inez, Kentucky, USA, failed, releasing a slurry consisting of an estimated 250 million gallons (950,000 m3) of water and 155,000 cubic yards (118,500 m3) of coal waste into local streams.

About 75 miles (120 km) of rivers and streams turned an irridescent black, causing a fish kill along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River and some of its tributaries. Towns along the Tug were forced to turn off their drinking water intakes.
The spill contained measurable amounts of metals, including arsenic, mercury, lead, copper and chromium, but not enough to pose health problems in treated water, according to a federal official.
The full extent of the environmental damage isn't yet known, and estimates of the cleanup costs go as high as $60 million.

At Martin County Coal's Inez operations, three mines feed coal into a preparation plant on conveyor belts through underground mine workings. Plant waste is poured into the 72-acre (29 ha) Big Branch impoundment that holds 2.3 billion gallons (8.7 million m3) of slurry.

Martin County Coal Corporation is a subsidiary of A.T. Massey Coal Company, Inc., Richmond, VA, which, in turn, is a subsidiary of Fluor Corp., Aliso Viejo, California.


The causes of the dam failure

According to the company, the failure was caused from the "sudden and unexpected" collapse of an abandonded underground coal mine next to the impoundment. The bottom of the slurry pond collapsed, allowing its contents to pour into the mine tunnels. The slurry then poured out of two mine entrances, about 2 miles apart, into two different watersheds (Wolf Creek and Coldwater Fork).
The state last inspected the impoundment Sept. 22 and found no problems.

Martin County Coal Corp. claimed on Nov. 29, 2000, in a court document that the massive spill was "an act of God", the occurrence of which was not within the control of the company. It moreover claims that any alleged negligence by the company occurred more than five years ago, which therefore is barred by applicable statutes of limitation.

The investigation of the spill shows that the protective barrier between an underground mine and the Martin County coal-waste impoundment was far thinner than regulators thought. Map information Martin County Coal Co. gave the state in seeking a permit to expand the impoundment showed a barrier of about 70 feet (21 m) between the bottom of the impoundment and the mine. However, extensive drilling done as part of the investigation showed the barrier was apparently less than 10 feet (3 m) thick.
On Feb. 12, 2001, federal mine-safety officials canceled Martin County Coal's permit for the impoundment and state officials ordered the company to close it, saying the thin barrier raises questions about its stability. The state cited violations that included misrepresenting the barrier's thickness and insufficient defenses against leaks, such as the failure to construct an adequate seepage barrier at the bottom of the impoundment. The state also cited the company for exceeding the maximum approved slurry elevation in the impoundment. The violation was detected in June 2000 when the slurry level was measured at 1,059 feet, that is 59 feet (18 m) beyond the 1,000-foot limit set by the permit.
See also: Kentucky Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet News Release Feb. 13, 2001

Federal regulators have tried to block the study investigating the barrier thickness from public release. The study was performed in March 2001 by Triad Engineering for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The Charleston Gazette obtained a copy on Oct. 7 and made it available for download on Oct. 9, 2001 (see link below).
There was less than 18 feet [5.5 meters] of rock between the bottom of the impoundment and the underground mine roof, according to the study.
"This minimal thickness of solid coal barrier combined with the continually increasing hydrostatic pressure as a result of the rising slurry level resulted in piping/erosion of the barrier and eventual breakthrough of slurry into the mine workings," concluded Triad Engineering.
Triad Engineering also found that Massey's mine maps, permit applications and consultants greatly misstated the location of the underground mine workings. Massey had said there was at least 70 feet [21 meters] of rock between the impoundment and the mine workings. (for full report, see Resources below)

On Oct 17, 2001, MSHA released a report investigating the causes of the impoundment failure (see Resources below).

"The failure of the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment and subsequent inundation of the 1-C Mine occurred because Martin County Coal Corporation failed to follow its approved Impoundment Sealing Plan, dated August 8, 1994, and subsequent plan modification dated September 7, 1995.
The approved plan included provisions to reduce seepage from the impoundment into mine workings. Failure to fully comply with these provisions resulted in internal erosion (piping) of the material between the impoundment and the mine workings. Over a period of time, the seepage into this area began to carry sand (weathered material) into the mine opening (Figure 5).
As this material was carried away, a "pipe" (void) formed and worked its way toward the impoundment. As more material was carried into the mine, a larger seepage path was created allowing additional and larger particles to be carried away. This process continued until the void developed close enough to the impoundment that the remaining plug of material failed suddenly, allowing the contents of the impoundment to discharge uncontrolled into the mine." (Overview section of MSHA report)

"MSHA cited Martin County Coal Company for two "unwarrantable failure" violations of federal mine safety standards that contributed to the spill. One contributory violation was the failure to spread the fine slurry layer as the approved plan specified. The second contributory violation was a failure to respond to signs that monitored water flow from the impoundment had increased. The increased flow should have been a signal that water flow from the impoundment into the mine was increasing, which could have led to corrective action." (MSHA release Oct. 17, 2001)

However, MSHA found there was no conclusive evidence that mine maps were wrong.

On March 4, 2002, The U.S. Office of Surface Mining released a report on the impoundment failure (see Resources below). It mainly concurs with MSHA on the causes of the slurry breakthrough.


In 1997, after two similar but smaller failures in Virginia *), the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) rated all coal-slurry impoundments across the country on their "breakthrough potential": 45 of the 225 impoundment ponds in Appalachia were classified as having a high risk for failure, and 32 were listed as moderate-risk. The rest were deemed low-risk.
The Martin County impoundment was deemed only a moderate risk to fail - despite a smaller leak in 1994. And if it failed, the survey said, the impact was expected to be on the safety of miners, not the environment. After the 1994 spill, improvements were made at the impoundment at MSHA's direction, but they failed to prevent the disaster.
Review and repair is not completed on more than half of 25 high-risk coal waste dams in the Appalachian coalfields, a MSHA report made public on Oct. 24, 2000 (but soon after removed from their homepage ), confirmed.
In December 2000, MSHA upgraded the risk classification of some of the impoundments, including the Martin County impoundment...

*) On Nov. 26, 1996, black water from a Consol coal waste dam at the company's Buchanan No. 1 Mine near Oakwood, Va., leaked into old underground mine workings and blew out the other side. The blowout sent coal slurry gushing into a tributary of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River at a rate of up to 1,000 gallons a minute (3.8 m3/min). The 25-mile (40 km) spill blackened creeks and killed fish.
A month earlier, the same thing happened at the Lone Mountain Processing (subsidiary of Arch Mineral Corp.) coal waste impoundment in Lee County, Va.: the spill unleashed 6 million gallons (23,000 m3) of black water into tributaries of the Powell River. The Arch Mineral operation had a nearly identical problem a few months before that.

The Martin County Coal impoundment dates to 1971, when it was approved as a dump for dry refuse. In 1984, the company applied for a permit to turn it into an impoundment and received state and federal permits to do so.
An engineer's report submitted by the coal company said, "It is not anticipated that subsidence will be a problem since the underground mines are situated only beneath the perimeter of the impoundment site."

But on May 22, 1994, the impoundment began leaking water onto the mountainside. Officials later determined the spill came from subsidence of an underground mine that bordered the impoundment. About 111 million gallons (420,000 m3) of mostly "black water" -- water mixed with fine coal refuse -- was released before the company plugged the leak. The consequences were far less damaging than the latest spill because the leak released mostly water, not sludge.

A month later, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration engineer Larry Wilson warned that the impoundment had major problems.
Seals between the impoundment and the underground mine were inadequate, Wilson found. Maps to show the proximity of the mine to the impoundment were inaccurate, he discovered. Major safety improvements were needed, Wilson concluded.
"If the water in the impoundment broke through and these seals were inundated, it is very possible that they would fail and a loss of life could occur," Wilson wrote in a June 13, 1994, memo obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Few, if any, of Wilson's recommendations were ever followed or thoroughly investigated, according to MSHA documents. A month after Wilson wrote his memo, MSHA sent the recommendations to Massey subsidiary Martin County Coal. But the agency never made sure Massey followed-through on the issues Wilson raised, the records show. MSHA records, obtained under federal FOIA, contain no evidence that the company ever responded. Instead, Martin County Coal submitted its own plan to seal the impoundment and make it safe for the company to use.
Engineers' reports the company filed with MSHA and the state detailed plans to shore up the impoundment by creating a "seepage barrier" around the edges that border underground mines. The barrier would be at least 12 feet (3.6 m) thick and consist of spoil material -- rocks, dirt and other refuse -- that would act as a plug for any break, should one occur, the reports said. The plans also called for reinforcing a concrete-block seal that closed off access to a working area of a mine that led out to Coldwater Fork.
The plans proposed that the company strip mine the Stockton coal seam at the site; rock and dirt from that mining would be used to construct the barrier.
The company's barrier plan involved blasting associated with the Stockton seam strip mining. However, Wilson had recommended: "The company should not blast to get hillside material for covering the failure zone below the Stockton seam." Wilson wrote, "Blasting above the Coalburg seam could be fracturing the foundation and creating cracks into the mined out areas."


The aftermath of the dam failure

As of Feb. 2, 2001, more than 300 people have filed claims that range from damaged property to medical problems to tainted water.

The change of administrations in Washington in January 2001 has forced the federal official heading the investigation into the collapse of the coal-waste reservoir to leave his job: Tony Oppegard, a former public interest lawyer from Kentucky specializing in mine safety, held a high-level position with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Federal investigators seeking the cause of the collapse of a coal-waste pond left Martin County Feb. 2, 2001, having completed drilling tests and most, if not all, of their interviews.

But even before the team has issued its findings, the Martin County Coal Corp. is seeking approval to resume dumping coal waste into the 72-acre impoundment. Martin County Coal filed a preliminary plan the same week for resuming use of the impoundment with the MSHA office in Pittsburgh and with the Kentucky Department of Surface Mining. The document proposes the storage of consolidated mud -- which has been partly dried -- and rock in the impoundment. When the reservoir broke, the presence of water facilitated the flow of sludge into two watersheds and eventually into the Big Sandy River.

On March 7, 2001, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an Administrative Order to Martin County Coal for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The Order is to ensure a sustained and appropriate level of cleanup that will make sure the impacted rivers and streams are fully restored.

On April 4, 2001, two people with ties to the coal industry have been removed from a national committee studying the safety of coal-waste impoundments: a Lexington attorney who has represented coal companies in legal disputes, and a coal industry consultant from Tennessee. Their backgrounds in coal matters were viewed by the academy as possible conflicts of interest with their work on the study.
However, environmentalists complain that the National Academy of Sciences panel still lacks balance because several remaining members have ties to the industry, and there are no representatives of citizens' or other groups.
> View Committee on Coal Waste Impoundments website

On April 6, 2001, the National Academy of Sciences has added three members to a national panel studying the safety of coal-waste impoundments. Those named to the panel include an environmental lawyer, an engineering professor and an engineering consultant.

On April 6, 2001, MSHA engineer Jack Spadaro asked to be taken off the agency's investigation team. In a resignation letter, Spadaro charged that top MSHA officials want to "leave unexamined serious deficiencies that were revealed during the investigation regarding the Mine Safety and Health Administration review and approval process for this impoundment." Spadaro said the investigation report was being watered down by Marvin Nichols, chief of coal mine safety for MSHA, and Timothy Thompson, an MSHA district manager in Morgantown.

On April 9, 2001, the president of Martin County Coal Corp. has announced he is resigning but declined to cite the company's Oct. 11 coal slurry spill as the reason.

On June 26, 2001, West Virginia went to court to force Martin County Coal Co. to pay damages for the spill.
The state Department of Environmental Protection said in its lawsuit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court that the 250 million gallons of sludge-like coal wastes that flowed into the rivers continues to cause damage. The lawsuit claims the company was negligent for failing to fix problems discovered after a smaller spill occurred at the pond in 1994. The state is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages and a court order requiring Martin County Coal to continue cleaning up the waterways.

On Oct. 11, 2001, Citizens' groups used the one-year anniversary of the coal sludge spill to demand change from the mining company that's still cleaning up the mess. The groups say they are fed up with Massey Energy Co.'s repeated environmental violations, which have included several smaller spills this year.

On Oct. 12, 2001, the National Academy of Sciences dam safety study team released its report on the safety of coal waste dams. The report calls for new federal standards for storing coal waste (see Resources below).

On April 25, 2002, MSHA levied a $110,000 penalty -- the largest fines possible -- against the Martin County Coal Co. for failing to prevent the Oct. 11, 2000 spill of 300 million gallons of sludge in and around Inez, Ky.
MSHA determined that Martin County Coal did not spread a layer of fine coal particles around the perimeter of the 70acre impoundment, a procedure that blocks water seepage. Regulators also found that the company failed to take action after an increasing amount of water and slurry began flowing out of the impoundment. The company was fined $55,000 for each violation, the maximum civil penalty.
However, the penalty for one violation was later thrown out and the other was reduced by 90% (see below).

On July 31, 2002, Martin County Coal agreed to pay a state fine of $3.25 million in penalties and damages: Martin County Coal officials signed an agreement with the Kentucky state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet to pay $1,750,000 in civil penalties, $1 million in damages to the environment and $500,000 for costs incurred by the state in the cleanup.
In addition to the monetary payments, Martin County Coal must close and reclaim the Big Branch Slurry Impoundment, near Inez, and remediate and restore streams in the area to meet water quality standards. The company is also required to obtain permits and post reclamation bonds for the areas where slurry from the cleanup operation is stored. (Herald Leader/Charleston Gazette Aug. 1, 2002)

Federal mine safety regulators did not heed warnings of serious problems at a coal waste impoundment in Martin County, Ky., an internal government review has found. U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials ignored agency staffers who recommended additional studies and safety precautions, the MSHA internal study found. An MSHA internal review team found that agency officials did not follow standard procedures when they reviewed plans for the Massey Energy Big Branch Impoundment. The team also found that MSHA does not do enough to make sure that impoundments across the coalfields are safe. “There is a wide variation in the frequency of inspections by specialists based upon hazard classification, breakthrough potential and during construction phases from district to district,” a summary of the review’s findings says. Further, “There are no clear guidelines for mining in the vicinity of impoundments or constructing an impoundment near underground mine workings.” (Charleston Gazette Nov. 4, 2002)

On Jan. 21, 2003, Federal mine safety officials conceded that they ignored their agency’s warnings about serious problems with the coal waste impoundment. In a long-awaited report, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration outlined numerous times MSHA failed to take action before the impoundment’s failure in October 2000. MSHA chief Dave Lauriski said that an internal review team found “systematic weaknesses” in agency reviews of the Martin County, Ky., impoundment and of huge coal waste dams across the coalfields.
The report said that the team found no evidence that these weaknesses “caused the accident.” Still, the report confirms previous press reports and criticisms of MSHA inaction by Jack Spadaro, a longtime mine safety engineer. (Charleston Gazette Jan. 22, 2003)
> Download Internal Review of MSHA's Actions at the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment Martin County Coal Corporation, released Jan. 21, 2003 (649k PDF)

The federal investigation into possible wrongdoing at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration might ultimately produce criminal charges against agency officials.
In an unusual move, the Office of the Inspector General began “an unannounced review of specific MSHA activities” by sending teams of investigators to three MSHA offices in Beckley; Arlington, Va., and Denver, Colo., on Jan. 28, 2003, without prior notification to agency employees.
Federal investigators feared MSHA officials might shred documents illegally, according to a memo from Assistant Inspector General Elliot P. Lewis to Dave Lauriski, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. (Charleston Gazette Jan. 31, 2003)

Federal mine safety officials backed off six of eight citations originally proposed to be issued to Massey Energy after the Martin County slurry spill in October 2000, according to a new report by the Department of Labor’s Inspector General. The report, released on Feb. 19, 2003, says that investigators could not substantiate complaints made by Jack Spadaro, a longtime federal mine inspector. When it released its 25-page report, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the agency withheld nearly half of the document’s content. (Charleston Gazette Feb. 20, 2003)

On May 1, 2003, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) released for public comment its public health consultation for the Martin County Coal Company site in Inez, Kentucky. The public health consultation evaluates environmental data and addresses community health concerns associated with the coal slurry spill that flooded area streams in 2000. ATSDR concludes that there were no exposures to contaminants at levels of health concern. Accordingly, ATSDR categorizes the site as not being an apparent public health hazard.
The public comment period for the public health consultation was extended through October 14, 2003.
(ATSDR releases: May 1, 2003 · Sep. 17, 2003 )

Massey dam failure subject of criminal probe: A federal prosecutor is looking into the October 2000 failure of a Massey Energy slurry impoundment in Martin County, Ky., the company has disclosed.
Massey officials have received a subpoena for information about the disaster, the company said in recent U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. In the filings, Massey noted a "subpoena for our documents relating to the impoundment and impoundment discharge that we have received from a federal grand jury of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. (Charleston Gazette July 30, 2003)
Excerpt from Massey Energy Co July 18, 2003, SEC filing

"Most of the claims, fines, penalties and lawsuits from the impoundment failure have been satisfied or settled.
Remaining issues (none of which we consider material) include:

Major citation tossed in Ky. slurry spill case: An administrative law judge has thrown out one of two major safety citations issued to a Massey Energy subsidiary following the massive October 2000 slurry spill in Martin County, Ky. In doing so, the judge ruled that "prudent mining engineers" would not have understood a company corrective plan that federal regulators approved following another spill in 1994. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration had cited Martin County Coal Co. for not complying with the corrective plan. (Charleston Gazette September 9, 2003)
> View administrative law judge's August 28, 2003, order: HTML · PDF
On Feb. 5, 2004, MSHA announced the appeal of this decision.

On September 30, 2003, the West Virginia state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) settled for $600,000 in a lawsuit over the coal slurry spill, which they hoped could bring far more in penalties from Massey Energy. The payment will cover some, but not all, of what the DEP and the Division of Natural Resources spent to respond to the spill, officials said.

A new Web site - www.coalimpoundment.org - has been established, providing information on the coal waste impoundments in West Virginia. It is a pilot project known as the Coal Impoundment Location and Warning System developed at Wheeling Jesuit University. So far, the web site lists 25 of West Virginia's 138 impoundments in use. Efforts have begun to expand the project to include Kentucky impoundments. But in Kentucky no similar program exists. Unlike West Virginia, Kentucky doesn't require coal companies to file emergency response plans.
MSHA, on the other hand, no longer makes public a listing of high-hazard and moderate-hazard impoundments because of concerns they could be potential targets of terrorists. (Courier-Journal Jan. 4, 2004)

An administrative law judge has cut by 90 percent a $55,000 fine imposed against Martin County Coal Corp. The fine had been imposed for the company's failure to take action after flowout of an increasing amount of water and slurry had been noticed. Judge Irwin Schroeder said in his order that he viewed Martin County Coal Corp.'s negligence in the spill as "moderate" and that the penalty assessed by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was "excessive." He cut the fine to $5,600.
> View administrative law judge's January 14, 2004, order: HTML · PDF
On Feb. 5, 2004, MSHA announced the appeal of this decision.

Massey Energy Co was advised on March 24, 2005, that the Federal government terminated its grand jury proceedings investigating the slurry spill. (Massey Energy SEC filing, May 10, 2005)

Massey Energy Co has agreed to pay a $20 million civil penalty to settle allegations that it polluted hundreds of rivers and streams in Kentucky and West Virginia. The penalty stems from the massive, 300-million-gallon slurry spill in Martin County, Ky., in October 2000, often described as the southeastern United States' worst environmental disaster, as well as 4,500 violations of Clean Water Act permits at mines in the two states.
As part of the agreement, Massey could spend an additional $10 million to modernize pollution controls at all its mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA says the company operates about 33 underground mines and 11 surface mines in the three states.
The fine is the largest the EPA has ever collected under its wastewater permit program, said Robert Klepp, an EPA attorney who worked on the case. (The Courier-Journal Jan. 18, 2008)

> Download Consent Decree: U.S. V. MASSEY ENERGY COMPANY (U.S. DOJ)

(All information compiled from Herald Leader, Courier-Journal, and Charleston Gazette articles)

And, what is more...

Kentucky has 58 coal-waste impoundments and MSHA has seven applications for impoundments pending in Eastern Kentucky, said officials with the agency's field offices in Pikeville and Barbourville.

That includes the proposed 560-acre impoundment that has sparked opposition in Perry County. It would be more than seven times the size of the 72-acre Martin County impoundment that failed and could hold 2.3 billion gallons.

Steve Sorke, an MSHA impoundment supervisor in Barbourville, said the larger impoundments are not unusual.

Those in Perry County concerned about Coastal Coal's proposal to build the 560-acre structure at Dunraven say the failure of the Martin County impoundment increases their worries.

Janice Misner said she and several other residents met with Coastal Coal officials the day the Martin County impoundment failed -- but hadn't yet heard the news. She said they asked company environmental engineer Mike Hansel what would happen if the Coastal Coal impoundment failed.

"He looked at me and said these things never break," she said.

(The Courier-Journal Oct. 22, 2000)



Vector map (look out for Big Branch Impoundment)


Aerial view of impoundment


MSHA (Windows Media format)

Martin County, Kentucky Coal Waste Spill: Produced by U.S. EPA Environmental Response Team. Running time 21 minutes.
> View Real Video · Windows Media

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