CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry poured into an eastern Kanawha County stream Tuesday in what officials were calling a "significant spill" from a Patriot Coal processing facility.
Emergency officials and environmental inspectors said roughly six miles of Fields Creek had been blackened and that a smaller amount of the slurry made it into the Kanawha River near Chesapeake.
"This has had significant, adverse environmental impact to Fields Creek and an unknown amount of impact to the Kanawha River," said Secretary Randy Huffman of the state Department of Environmental Protection. "This is a big deal, this is a significant slurry spill."
"When this much coal slurry goes into the stream, it wipes the stream out."
Earlier in the day, Jimmy Gianato, director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said he didn't have a lot of details on the incident but was under the impression it wasn't that serious."I don't think there's really anything to it," Gianato said. "It turned out to be much of nothing."
The spill occurred at Patriot Coal's Kanawha Eagle operation.
The spill was caused by a malfunction of a valve inside the slurry line, carrying material from the preparation plant to a separate disposal site, not to an impoundment, according to DEP officials.
The valve broke sometime between 2:30 and 5:30 early Tuesday morning, Huffman said at a news conference Tuesday evening. Patriot Coal did not call the DEP to alert them of the leak until 7:40 Tuesday morning, Huffman said. Companies are required to immediately report any spills to the DEP.
There was an alarm system in place to alert facility operators of the broken valve, but the alarm failed, so pumps continued to send the toxic slurry through the system. There was a secondary containment wall around the valve, but with the pumps continuing to send slurry to the broken valve, it was soon overwhelmed and the slurry overflowed the wall and made its way to the creek.
Huffman said they did not know why the alarm system failed.
"Had the alarms gone off and warned the operator that the pipe was leaking, the shutdown could have been done in time for the secondary containment to contain the material that leaked," Huffman said. "This was a mechanical failure, we're not making any excuses for anybody."
The company turned off the pumps at 5:30, more than two hours before anyone called the DEP, but Huffman said he's not sure if they turned off the pumps because they knew about the spill or for another reason.
Patriot Coal released a statement on the spill Tuesday evening.
"Mine personnel provided notification to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and all pumping related to the slurry line was promptly discontinued and the discharge ceased. Containment activity began immediately at the site and is continuing in Fields Creek and is our top priority," Janine Orf, a Patriot spokeswoman wrote.
For most of the day, the DEP was operating under the assumption that MCHM, the chemical that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians last month, was included in the spilled slurry. Huffman said that they learned late in the day that the facility had stopped using MCHM just a few weeks ago, so a different coal-cleaning chemical was involved.
Huffman said that the new chemical was polypropylene glycol, although he also referred to it as polyethylene glycol. He said that that chemical is such a small part of the slurry that they don't believe it, specifically, will have an impact.
Huffman said they had been testing for MCHM, but will now have to change their testing protocols.
Residents near the spill had complained of MCHM's telltale licorice odor, but Huffman said that the odor was from a tank of MCHM that the company was moving off site.
Oddly, in Patriot's statement the company mentioned testing for MCHM in Fields Creek.
"Recent testing initiated by the Kanawha Eagle mining complex confirmed that the level of MCHM is far below the 1 part per million screening level set by the Centers for Disease Control and in most instances was non-detectable," Orf wrote. "We will continue to work with the Department of Environmental Protection regarding the containment and cleanup activities."
Huffman said that they are using booms, vacuum trucks and settling ponds to try to contain the spill.
Coal slurry contains a variety of substances that are likely more toxic than Crude MCHM or polyethylene glycol. It contains heavy metals, like iron, manganese, aluminum and selenium.
By calculating the rate of the pump and the time it ran, DEP officials estimate a maximum of 108,000 gallons of slurry spilled into Fields Creek. They do not know how much made it into the Kanawha, but Huffman said the slurry was visible in the river for about a half-mile before it began to dissipate.