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DOL News Release No. 01-364
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: Kathy Snyder/Rodney Brown
Phone: (703) 235-1452

Released Wednesday, October 17, 2001

News Release

Agency Also Reviewing Internal Impoundment Approval Procedures

WASHINGTON -- The Mine Safety and Health Administration released a report today citing Martin County Coal Company for very serious, or "unwarrantable failure", violations of federal mine safety laws, which resulted in the release of 300 million gallons of coal slurry from an impoundment last October.

Together with the report's release, MSHA Assistant Secretary Dave D. Lauriski announced that the agency would conduct an "internal review" of the procedures to approve coal mine impoundments, and in particular the Martin County impoundment, and will make any changes necessary. This review will be conducted by other career professionals who were not involved in the Martin County investigation. Earlier this year, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao requested the Department's Inspector General to look into reported problems with the investigation.

"In the end, we think the investigative team did a good job and produced a fair, accurate, tough report. But I want us to review and improve the way we oversee these impoundments, and better manage the internal conflicts that marred the investigation earlier this year," Lauriski said. "Our goal must be to prevent these dangerous impoundment failures from happening in the future," Lauriski added.

The report found that the company failed, in constructing the impoundment, to spread a layer of fine coal slurry around the perimeter, an impoundment plan requirement for this site that would have created a barrier against water seepage. Impounded water, seeping through underlying layers of slurry and rock, gradually formed a conduit for increasing flow that resulted in sudden failure of the impoundment.

MSHA cited Martin County Coal Company for two "unwarrantable failure" violations of federal mine safety standards that contributed to the spill. One contributory violation was the failure to spread the fine slurry layer as the approved plan specified. The second contributory violation was a failure to respond to signs that monitored water flow from the impoundment had increased. The increased flow should have been a signal that water flow from the impoundment into the mine was increasing, which could have led to corrective action. The company also was cited for a non-contributory violation regarding underground seals. The investigators said that the violation was non-contributory because the specified seals would not have held back the slurry once the seepage reached a critical point.

The report did note how quickly and effectively the company responded to the impoundment failure, shutting off the massive flow within four hours of the failure, while working in dangerous nighttime conditions.

Investigators also determined that the minimum straight-line distance between the bottom of the impoundment and the underlying mine was 27 feet. The distance itself was not considered a factor in the accident, and there was no conclusive evidence that mine maps were wrong, investigators said.

On October 11, 2000, an inrush of water and slurry from the impoundment poured into an underground mine, bursting through portals, and flowing into tributaries of the Big Sandy River. No one was injured in the incident. The 68-acre impoundment is no longer used for slurry disposal.

Copies of the report are available at MSHA's headquarters office or from MSHA's District 6 office, Pikeville, Ky., at (606) 432-0943. The report also is available on MSHA's web site at


Surface Impoundment Facility Underground Coal Mine
Noninjury Impoundment Failure/Mine Inundation Accident

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