June 30, 2003 WHEELING, WV - The Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration recently signed contracts that will advance a pilot project to help reduce the dangers of coal slurry impoundments. The project will focus on impoundments in Southern West Virginia.
"The recent rains and flooding in Southern West Virginia highlight the importance of the project. Breaks in coal slurry impoundments can threaten the lives and health of area residents, destroy homes and businesses, and contaminate water supplies. This dangerous potential looms over coal mining regions in West Virginia and throughout Appalachia," says Joseph Allen, President of the National Technology Transfer Center (NTTC) at Wheeling Jesuit University. "This project is a perfect fit for the NTTC as we continue to make an impact regionally, as well as nationally. This is an opportunity for the NTTC to engage our resources and expertise in a way that can have a positive effect in our region."
The NTTC will coordinate the project, which will utilize the expertise of the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). MSHA, created following the Buffalo Creek spill, has the responsibility to monitor the safety of coal waste impoundments in West Virginia and throughout the nation.
"It is my hope that this pilot project will lead to innovative ways to reduce the risks for communities near these sites and for individuals who work there, " says U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. Byrd funded the initiative through legislation earlier this year. Byrd included $3 million for the comprehensive pilot project in the Fiscal Year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations bill, a package that contains funding for the federal government's domestic spending and foreign operations.
"The project will look at NTTC's resources and examine ways in which we can improve the safety of active and abandoned impoundments by identifying reliable, feasible, and economical methods to improve impoundment security," says Davitt McAteer, director of the Coal Impoundment Project. McAteer is former Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health, Department of Labor.
"This project will provide an inventory and mapping of active and abandoned impoundments and provide the public with information about the impoundments in their communities. Ultimately it is about helping to protect the environment and helping to improve the safety of the people of West Virginia and the Appalachian region," says McAteer. "We will work with all the stake holders, citizens, mining industry, labor and state and federal agencies to address what everyone agrees is a important concern for the people of the state and region."
The pilot project stems from an October 2001 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report that made recommendations to improve the safety and reduce the environmental impacts of coal waste impoundments. Byrd supported $2 million in an appropriations bill to commission that study after a breach in eastern Kentucky in October 2000 caused 250 million gallons of coal slurry to spill into tributaries of the Tug Fork and Big Sandy Rivers along the Kentucky-West Virginia border. There have been at least nine major spills in the Appalachian coalfields since the deadly Buffalo Creek spill in 1972, when, after days of rain, a sludge pond owned by the Pittston Coal Company burst and released millions of gallons of black water upon the residents of Buffalo Creek. A 30-foot-high wall of water containing coal and mud came rushing down Buffalo Creek. More than 125 men, women and children lost their lives, more than 1,000 homes were destroyed, and 4,000 people were left homeless.
"Coal slurry impoundment breaks have led to deaths and destruction. Instead of simply regretting the past, we must learn from those mistakes. We must find alternative ways to prevent such disasters from happening in the future," Byrd stated.
The Clifford M. Lewis, S.J., Appalachian Institute at Wheeling Jesuit University will provide expertise and researchers for the project, which has great potential to positively impact the quality of life in the Appalachian region.
"This is an opportunity for the University, for the NTTC, and for the Appalachian Institute to play a critical role in protecting the people of these communities and keeping them safe from coal impoundments. This is what we strive to do, and this project is an important step toward the empowerment of people and communities in Southern West Virginia," says Fr. Joseph Hacala, S.J., Executive Director of the Appalachian Institute.
The project will study alternatives to the creation of waste and the reduction of existing impoundments, as well as alternative methods of disposal and power generation from all impoundment materials, and will consider mine maps and mine survey accuracy issues.
"We must learn from the tragic coal slurry breaches of the past and push forward to discover new economically feasible and environmentally friendly ways to prevent such disasters in the future. Steps must be taken to ensure the citizens of Southern West Virginia that their drinking water will be kept safe and their lives and property will be protected," Byrd said.
Located on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University, the NTTC was established by Congress in 1989, and is a full-service technology management center, providing access to federal technology information, technology commercialization training, technology assessment, technology marketing, assistance in finding strategic partners and electronic business development services.
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