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Federal, state officials weigh in on coal slurry injections

Originally posted here

Associated Press Writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Federal scientists continue to study whether coal waste pumped into tapped-out underground mines can poison local drinking water, amid signs of cancer and other serious diseases in coal-producing areas, lawmakers learned Wednesday.

“We don’t know much about coal slurry chemistry,” Bill Orem, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told a joint interim subcommittee studying the issue. “We need to have a better handle on what happens when you inject this into the subsurface.”

But state regulators discounted that the mason jars of blackened drinking water and allegations of health ailments – presented to the subcommittee at last month’s interim meeting – can be linked to coal waste injected underground.

“We’re not seeing that those slurry things are the contaminants,” said George Jenkins, a hydrologist for the Department of Environmental Protection. “A lot of people don’t understand that you have to maintain wells like you do your car.”

In theory, Jenkins said, this waste from cleaning and processing coal is pumped into standing water in abandoned, sealed mines. The one-third of slurry that is solid settles to the bottom, leaving the water.

Chad Board manages DEP’s underground injection control permit program. He told lawmakers that the program assesses every chemical used to process the coal, tests the slurry at the point it enters the ground and forbids injections within a quarter-mile of a personal well.

“Since we began the process, we haven’t had any adverse environmental impacts to date,” Board said.

Board added that the injection sites targeted by coalfield residents at the October meeting all predate the permit program.

Dozens of these residents and their supporters from environmental groups have helped pack the interim meetings since pressing lawmakers to study the issue.

Last month’s meeting also featured findings of Wheeling Jesuit University biologists. Tests on 170 springs, streams and wells around Mingo County mine sites showed unsafe levels of iron, manganese and sodium in 42 percent of the wells.

About a half-million state residents rely on wells or hauled water for their drinking supply, state officials estimate.

Orem, the USGS chemist, told the subcommittee Wednesday of high incidents of pelvic cancer and a disease that causes renal failure in coal producing areas of Louisiana and western states. A study of coal slurry sites in Tennessee, meanwhile, found nearby declines in freshwater mussels, which filter water.

“They are a sort of the canary in the coal mine,” Orem said.

The Judiciary subcommittee plans to hear from the West Virginia Coal Association at its December meeting.





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