Potential problems at 20 W.Va. coal ash dams

AP News
Posted: Nov 06, 2009 4:37 PM

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection may change its policy for inspecting coal ash impoundments after a survey uncovered more problems _ and dams _ than expected.

A report detailing the survey shows engineers found three of the state's 20 coal ash impoundments are in poor condition and two that the state had no idea existed were rated unsatisfactory.

The rest of the state's impoundments rated satisfactory or fair, though engineers turned up potential problems, most of them involving control of animals and vegetation.

In most cases, the agency is requiring owners to bring dams up to satisfactory condition.

"None of these dams, we feel, are a problem in terms of their safety on a day like today, as long as we don't get a seismic event," Brian Long, coordinator of the agency's dam safety program, said Friday. "It's when they are stressed by heavy rainfall that we really have some concerns over some of them, but for the most part these dams have adequate storage and spillway capacity to handle very large rainstorms."

Currently, DEP has no set schedule for inspecting coal ash impoundments. Typically that's a job left to dam owners, who must report to the state annually. The findings suggest DEP may conduct its own inspections more often, Secretary Randy Huffman said.

"At least for these larger impoundments, of which there are only 20, maybe we need to go out a little bit more often and look at those ourselves," Huffman said. "We haven't fleshed out any concrete plans."

Two of the dams proved to be especially problematic.

DEP inspectors found both at an American Electric Power coal ash landfill in Mason County that isn't supposed to have any dams at all.

"That's not a good thing," Huffman said.

The Columbus, Ohio-based electric utility enlarged two storm water control ponds so much that they qualified as dams under state law, Long said. Neither meets state standards.

DEP found the dams are constructed of fly ash and lack foundations, among other problems. The agency has ordered AEP to fix the problems, though Long said the company plans to fill the impoundments instead.

AEP spokesman Phil Moye said the company welcomes inspections.

"We want to do the right thing, so if there's an area of our operations that needs improvement, we welcome the opportunity to make those improvements."

State engineers found significant problems at AEP's Philip Sporn power plant in Mason County. The DEP report says inspectors concluded the dam, which sits next to the Ohio River, could fail.

Two Kanawha County dams also were deemed poor, though both have been filled and no longer contain water. One is now used as a golf driving range.

"They're not a huge concern if we're talking loss of life," Long said, adding that both pose significant environmental concerns. "If the dams were to fail, the ash is going to end up in the Kanawha River very shortly."