On Tuesday morning, a coal preparation facility in West Virginia leaked more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into a waterway near Charleston. The spill comes just after a chemical leak by Freedom Industries polluted the Elk River and placed West Virginia in a state of emergency.
Coal slurry poured into an eastern Kanawha County stream from a Patriot Coal processing facility in what officials called a “significant spill,” according to the WV Gazette. Emergency officials said that six miles of Fields Creek were blackened and some of the slurry made it into the Kanawha River near Chesapeake.
“This has had [a] significant, adverse environmental impact to Fields Creek an unknown amount of impact to the Kanawha River,” Randy Huffman, Secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), told the Gazette. “This is a big deal… When this much coal slurry goes into the stream, it wipes the stream out.”
The spill at Patriot Coal’s Kanawha Eagle facility was caused by a valve malfunction inside the slurry line, which carries the material from a preparation plant to a disposal site, DEP officials reported. The valve broke between 2:30am and 5:30am on Tuesday morning, though Patriot Coal did not inform the DEP of the leak until around 7:40am Tuesday morning.
The alarm system in place to alert operators of a broken valve failed and a secondary containment wall around the valve was overwhelmed by a continuous flow of slurry, the Gazette reports. Patriot Coal employees turned the valve off around 5:30am, two hours before alerting the DEP of the incident.
The DEP initially believed that MCHM, the same chemical that contaminated the drinking water of around 300,000 West Virginians last month, was an ingredient in the spilled slurry. They were later informed that the facility stopped using MCHM a few weeks ago and are now using the coal-cleaning chemical polypropylene glycol.
Huffman said they had been testing for MCHM, but will now have to change their testing protocols.
Residents near the spill had complained of MCHM’s telltale licorice odor, but Huffman said that the odor was from a tank of MCHM that the company was moving off site.
Oddly, in Patriot’s statement the company mentioned testing for MCHM in Fields Creek.
A spokesperson for Patriot Coal issued a statement on Tuesday evening, saying that recent testing in the Kanawha Eagle mining complex confirmed that the level of MCHM is “far below” the screening level set by the Centers for Disease Control.
Coal slurry is a waste product of the coal processing procedure. It consists of chemically-treated water and a wide range of heavy metals including arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, aluminum, and nickel, according to the Sludge Safety Project. The chemical composition can vary depending on the coal being processed as well as the chemicals used by a particular plant, making it difficult for citizens to figure out what chemicals they’ve potentially been exposed to.
“The spill of chemicals into a water supply is a very serious offense that requires a careful investigation of all the facts surrounding the incident,” commented Emmie Paulos, an attorney with the Levin, Papantonio law firm who is involved in the BP oil spill litigation. “There are federal environmental laws in place to protect the public and environment.”
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