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The "Internal Review of MSHA's Actions At the Big Branch Refuse Impoundment, Martin County Coal Corporation, Inez, Martin County, Kentucky," released on January 21, 2003, reviewed MSHA's actions concerning the coal waste impoundment release of October, 2000. The report offers some insight into the systemic problems with the manner in which the agency assesses and communicates the potential for impoundment pool failure from disposal of coal wastes in slurry impoundments near underground workings. Yet the report fell far short of committing MSHA to undertake actions needed to fully address the agency's failures both before and after the 2001 release.

The report noted that the District office approved the 1994 Impoundment Sealing Plan, (developed and submitted after the first breakthrough of the Martin County slurry impoundment into underground workings), without requiring that five of the nine recommendations from MSHA's Technical Support Branch for such a plan be implemented. Additionally, the report notes that eight of the eleven key recommendations made by the peer review of the Impoundment Safety program in 1998 have yet to be addressed by the agency.


Insofar as it goes, the report does highlight a number of systemic agency shortcomings in the area of impoundment safety and underground mine mapping accuracy. Yet the report stops at October 11, and does not address allegations that Mr. Lauriski and others under his employment sought to make significant changes softening the Report of Investigation, and to require the signature of the investigation team over those changes. The report does not even mention the Skiles memorandum of November 2000, which identified the same systemic programmatic weaknesses now admitted by the agency, but which was apparently never acted upon.


While offering some additional insight, the internal report does not commit the agency to an aggressive and effective program for responding to the 250 or so other cases of coal waste impoundments overlying or adjacent to underground mine workings that are acknowledged by the agency to have the potential for breakthroughs into active or abandoned underground workings.


A significant factor in the October 2001 slurry release was the failure of the company to have accurately identified and mapped the extent of underground workings, and the overstatement of the thickness and competence of the outcrop barrier between the mine void and the land surface. Until MSHA commits to requiring that for existing and proposed cola waste impoundments where there is any possibility of existing underground mine workings, that a full geotechnical investigation of those areas beneath and adjacent to proposed coal waste impoundments be conducted, MSHA will fall short of a passing grade on the harsh lessons taught by the past impoundment pool breakthroughs.


Having identified a number of serious deficiencies in the manner in which technical recommendations ignored rather than implemented, and failures of internal communication and accountability, the unanswered question is whether the agency will take meaningful steps to account to downstream populations and to Congress as to how these deficiencies have been corrected and recommendations implemented.


The MSHA Internal Review can be downloaded or viewed in PDF format at


By Kentucky Resources Council on 07/19/2003 5:32 PM
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