Data on Safety of Injecting Coal Slurry Underground Found to Be Lacking
Sunday, March 22, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Regulators in several Appalachian states that let coal companies inject slurry into abandoned mines say they are confident the practice is safe, but an Associated Press survey shows they lack the data to answer citizens who believe aquifers, water wells and their own health are at risk.
None of the five states contacted by the AP has studied the chemical composition of slurry, a byproduct left when clay, sulfur and other impurities are removed from coal to make it burn more efficiently. For decades, slurry has been injected into abandoned mines in Appalachia as a cheap alternative to building dams or filtration and drying systems.
But hundreds of West Virginians are suing coal companies in two cases, claiming that chemicals and metals in the slurry have leaked into aquifers, contaminated well water and caused health problems ranging from kidney disease to cancer.
An e-mail survey of regulators in West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Ohio found that none track exactly how much slurry is pumped underground.
"There's just a complete lack of oversight," said activist Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.
The Environmental Protection Agency has allowed states for decades to use old mines as "backfill wells" for waste, documenting at least 5,000 sites in 17 states at last count in 1999. But EPA figures also include sites for other materials.
The AP's review suggests the process is rare in Pennsylvania and Ohio, which report two sites each. Alabama operators report 11 active sites, Kentucky 14, and West Virginia lets 15 firms inject slurry.