Blackwater, A Third Kind Of Coal Waste, Is Now Leaking Into A West Virginia Creek

CREDIT: AP Photo/Roger Alford

State biologist Kevin Frey scoops small fish out of the Tug Fork in 2004, after a coal sludge spill. The creek contaminated from Wednesday's spill in West Virginia runs into the Tug Fork.

Regulators in West Virginia are working to clean up yet another coal waste spill, after runoff from melting snow overran sediment control ponds at a slurry impoundment, sending polluted water into a creek.

The slurry impoundment — which is essentially a large pool of sludge, leftover from the coal mining and preparation processes — had been re-opened by a company called Gary Partners LLC to mine the leftover bits of coal, according a report from the Charleston Gazette. After recently-fallen snow began to melt around the impoundment, it began to overflow the site’s sediment control ponds, sending something called “blackwater” into a nearby creek.

“The water is discolored,” Harold Ward, acting director of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Mining and Reclamation Division, told ThinkProgress. “It is black, but it’s not a slurry spill or anything like that.”

The event is the third time in less than two months that West Virginia has experienced a coal-related pollutant spill into its waters. On Feb. 11, a pipe break at a Patriot Coal preparation site spewed more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into a waterway near Charleston. On Jan. 9, approximately 10,000 gallons of a mysterious chemical called crude MCHM, used to clean coal, contaminated drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians. All three spills have yet to be fully remediated.

Ward said response teams were currently at the scene of the blackwater spill, working to clear it up. He confirmed that the creek would eventually run into the Tug Fork River, which supplies drinking water, but said the spill was small enough to be confined before it spread. Exact figures on how much blackwater spilled was not immediately available. Ward also said the DEP did not anticipate that the spill would pose a public health threat at this time.

The exact components of blackwater are difficult to discern, though it appears to be water that is tainted with a small bit of coal slurry. Coal slurry itself contains a wide range of heavy metals including arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium, iron, manganese, aluminum and nickel.