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Coal-Prep Chemicals Called Threats to Clean Water

PHOTO: Increasing numbers of West Virginians say they're concerned that coal-cleaning chemicals such as MCHM are getting into the water. Some Kentuckians share that concern. Photo credit: Dan Heyman.
PHOTO: Increasing numbers of West Virginians say they're concerned that coal-cleaning chemicals such as MCHM are getting into the water. Some Kentuckians share that concern. Photo credit: Dan Heyman.
February 19, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. - West Virginia has been at the epicenter of concerns recently over coal-washing that may be leaching large amounts of MCHM and similar chemicals into the state's water.

MCHM - 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol - is a foaming agent used to separate and float particles of coal away from rock and clay at prep plants. Much of it and other chemicals end up in the slurry that is piped into huge waste impoundments.

West Virginia legislator Mike Manypenny, who co-chairs that state's Joint Oversight Commission on Water Resources, said what comes from the plants gets into surface and ground water.

"None of these impoundments are lined," he said. "And if this is just open-pit that they're filling with this slurry, it's going to penetrate into the soil eventually, and reach the aquifer."

Manypenny said the waste coming from the West Virginia prep plants is not monitored or regulated for the chemicals. MCHM was found in a recent slurry spill.

As with West Virginia, protections are "inadequate" in Kentucky as well, said Lane Boldman, outreach coordinator for the Kentucky Environmental Foundation. While safety plans are required, she said, "No one is really watching the store.

"There's really not enough regulators or people monitoring that these action plans are viable, that the storage containers are sound, and that these spills won't happen in the first place."

Boldman said the Kentucky Environmental Foundation wants "much stronger" changes made to the Toxic Substances Control Act than what Congress is considering. She called the West Virginia spills a "perfect example" of what can go wrong.

A researcher close to the coal industry defended the coal-washing process, claiming the chemicals that are used bind to the solids in the slurry and stay in the impoundments. But others claimed that's a largely untested theory.

Joe Stanley, who used to work at a prep plant, said people in the coalfields complain that their wells and spring water have been contaminated by slurry and say science backs them up.

"I've looked at the test results," he said. "I have talked to the people who own these wells and these springs, and there are elements that are ending up in these systems."

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY