The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

December 30, 2008

Coal waste sludge ponds — how safe are they?

Last week, more than a billion gallons of coal fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, spilled across 300 acres of land in Tennessee after a dike burst at a retention pond used to store the ash.

Stephen Smith, executive director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, termed the event “the largest coal ash spill ever to hit the eastern U.S.”

Just how dangerous is coal sludge’? And what’s the difference between the sludge contained at a Marsh Fork facility in Raleigh County and the fly ash currently blanketing hundreds of acres in Tennessee?

The Environmental Protection Agency has suggested residents temporarily avoid activities that could “stir up dust, such as children playing outside,” since the dust can contain metals which could precipitate health problems.

Tennessee residents are demanding answers on whether their health is being compromised by the fly ash, and environmental groups are urging authorities to properly warn these residents of whether the muck poses a concern.

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Assertions that children attending Marsh Fork Elementary School face health concerns due to coal sludge contained at a nearby Massey Energy facility has been circulating for years. The facility is situated 400 yards from the school, and environmentalists contend the 2.8 billion-gallon sludge impoundment at the facility is leaking and is dangerous not only to the school, but the community as well.

What’s the difference between the coal fly ash in Tennessee and the sludge in Marsh Fork?

“When you mine coal, surface or deep, you can’t just put the material in a coal car and send it off to a market — it’s got a lot of waste material in it that you cannot mix with the coal,” said Brian Long, manager of the dam safety program for water and waste management at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

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