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Environmentalist spurns coal panel. By Bill Estep Lexington HERALD-LEADER Posted: May 12, 2001
Published Saturday, May 12, 2001, in the Herald-Leader
One of Kentucky's top environmental watchdogs has refused an invitation to speak to a national panel studying the safety of coal-waste impoundments.
Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, said officials at the National Academy of Science invited him to give a 15-minute
presentation at its meeting Thursday in Charleston, W.Va., as part of an ``environmental roundtable.''
FitzGerald said the panel is heavy with people who have ties to the coal industry, and as a result he is concerned the study will not be thorough or objective.
``I must decline to lend tacit support to the manner in which the study process has been structured and managed by participating on a panel,'' FitzGerald said in
an e-mail to an NAS official.
Tamara Dickinson, a senior program officer at NAS who is director of the study, said it is ``a little unusual'' for people who are available and feel they have
something to say to turn down a chance to speak before an NAS panel.
Congress directed NAS to study coal-waste impoundments after a 72-acre facility owned by Martin County Coal Corp. failed on Oct. 11, leaking an estimated
250 million gallons of water and sludge-like coal waste into nearby underground mineworks, from where it rushed into area creeks and rivers.
Investigators said they later discovered that the barrier between the impoundment and underground mineworks was only a few feet much less than required and
much less than shown on maps submitted to regulators.
The NAS study committee is charged with examining issues that include impoundment engineering standards, ways to measure barriers, mapping methods, and
possible alternatives to slurry storage, such as drying the waste.
Investigations of the impoundment failure have sparked controversy.
Last month, a safety expert with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration asked to resign from an MSHA committee investigating the failure.
MSHA veteran Jack Spadaro, superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va., said he was concerned that some MSHA
superiors were trying to rig the study so it wouldn't examine the agency's own failures in the Martin County case.
However, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, speaking in Lexington earlier this week, said she is determined that the study will be complete and thorough.
On another front, environmentalists and labor groups have complained that too many members of the NAS study panel have ties to the coal industry, with too
little representation for other interests.
FitzGerald and others said several committee members had real or potential conflicts because their ties to the coal industry might make them reluctant to
recommend changes that could add to the cost of disposing of coal waste.
In response, the NAS removed two committee members. The agency also disclosed a conflict of interest by another panel member, but said his expertise in
impoundments is so great that it needed him on the panel.
FitzGerald argues the panel still has too many members with potential conflicts of interest and has allocated disproportionate time for presentations by people
with ties to the industry, he said in his e-mail to the NAS.
Dickinson said NAS plans to add two more members to the panel before next week's two-day meeting in Charleston.
NAS believes that will adequately balance the panel, she said.
The meeting next week will be the second one of the entire panel, though subcommittees have met three other times.
Oct. 15 is the deadline for the committee to give Congress its report and recommendations.
Members will finish gathering information by late June or early July, then gets the report ready for NAS review and public comment, Dickinson said.