On February 26, 1972, a Pittston Co. coal mine dam broke, releasing 132 million gallons of coal wastes into Buffalo Creek hollow in Logan County, West Virginia. More than 4,000 residents were left homeless, 1,100 were injured, and 125 died.
Is history about to repeat itself?
West Virginia Public Broadcasting last week reported on a Massey Energy’s Goals Coal Company dam in Raleigh County, not far from site of the Buffalo Creek disaster. The Shumate dam is a pile of coal refuse 385 feet high. And it sits right above Marsh Fork Elementary School.
Massey Energy and federal mine regulators say the dam is safe. But the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) has fined the company a number of times for deficiencies. Last year, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Dan Heyman sought access to the MSHA reports. Heyman found out that in the late 90’s, MSHA inspector Jim Elkins issued citations to Goals Coal Co. for not properly compacting the dam’s fill material. In one, in November 1998, MSHA fined the company for putting refuse down in layers as much as 10-feet thick. These layers cannot be more than one foot. The thinner the layer, the easier it is to compact.
It took three months for MSHA to release that citation after West Virginia Public Broadcasting filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act. But while MSHA released some of the information, it left some out. Here’s something they left out:
According to the report, after inspector Elkins noted that a thousand people live downstream, he wrote “if the dam failed, fatalities would be expected to occur. It’s reasonably likely an accident would occur if the condition continued to exist.” They also left out a concern that Elkins had about the dam a few months later. Again, Elkins expressed a concern that people would die if Massey didn’t correct another compaction problem. Heyman reported that a few weeks after being cited for the 1998 violation, Goals Coal Co. corrected this problem. But four months later, inspector Elkins wrote an even stronger citation.
Elkins noted that “much of one side of the dam consisted of soft, wet layers of coal refuse five to ten feet thick.” He wrote that the condition probably existed for several weeks. The inspector added that people downstream would be “exposed possibly fatally if the dam blew out on this side and caused failure of the dam.It is reasonably likely an accident would occur if the dam filled up with water. This area would be the most likely to fail.” Heyman said that “this is the second statement that MSHA withheld from Public Broadcasting.”
“We only know about the language that Elkins used because his statements were included in documents that MSHA released to an environmental group four years ago,” Heyman said. “Back then, the dam had received little, if any, media attention. By the time we filed our request for records in August, MSHA had decided the inspector’s concerns are not public information.”
Heyman reported that Massey fixed the compaction problems cited by MSHA. But others abound. Heyman reported that MSHA has cited the impoundment 17 other times for violations in the last 10 years. According to the report, these include three citations from 2001 to 2003, where MSHA cited the company for letting erosion gullies up to 10 feet deep and 12 feet wide form on the impoundment side of the dam. MSHA also cited the company five times, from 2001 to 2003, for letting timber and brush piles build up around the dam or for using wood waste and scrap metal to build up the dam. “Like the earlier citations, MSHA also withheld additional information concerning these violations,” Heyman said. “But we can’t confirm what MSHA withheld. We don’t have copies of previously released documents to compare them to.”
Heyman said that the Shumate dam is deserving of attention for two reasons — one, its proximity to a school, and two, it was a Massey impoundment that failed and released about 300 million gallons of coal slurry in Martin County, Kentucky, five years ago. No lives were lost in that environmental disaster.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter,