State officials in West Virginia were trying Tuesday to contain a coal slurry spill into a creek in the same general area where a toxic chemical spill last month tainted drinking water for 300,000 people in and around the state capital of Charleston.
A state environmental official called the slurry spill "significant" but also said that public water intakes were not affected.
The early morning spill dumped an undetermined amount of coal slurry into Fields Creek, blackening waters that feed into the Kanawha River in Charleston, according to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The Jan. 9 chemical spill released the toxic chemical 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, into the Elk River, a tributary of the Kanawha.
A representative of the coal company told regulators that it uses a frothing chemical, Flomin 110-C, that contains MCHM, the environmental agency said in a statement Tuesday. The agency said it was testing the tainted water in several locations and sending samples to a laboratory in Charleston for analysis.
Enforcement action against the coal company is pending, the agency said. The company operates a coal preparation plant and a coal slurry impoundment facility.
Crews were using booms to try to contain the spill, the agency said.
West Virginia American Water, the main water utility in the region, said in a statement that the slurry spill did not affect the company's water treatment plant in Charleston, located a mile above where the Elk River empties in the Kanawha River.
"We have been in contact with the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, which concurs that they do not anticipate any impact to our plant on the Elk River,'' said a water company spokeswoman, Laura Jordan. Nor is the spill expected to affect a company water plant farther west on the Ohio River in Huntington, W. Va., Jordan said.
The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement warned in a 2009 report that state environmental regulators were not taking effective action to reduce spills from coal mining operations.
A slurry line ruptured at the Kanawha Eagle Prep Plant near Winifrede, W. Va., south of Charleston, between midnight and 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, the state agency said. Workers shut down slurry pumps after the break was discovered and the spill was reported to authorities just after 7:30 a.m., the agency said. Coal slurry contains solid and liquid waste from the coal preparation process.
Dale Petry, director of emergency services for Kanawha County, told the Charleston Gazette that the spill should have been reported more promptly. "I need to know about it a little bit sooner," he said.
State regulators said the chemical company responsible for the Jan. 9 MCHM spill did not promptly report the incident and did not take effective measures to control the spill. State and federal officials have been harshly criticized by health experts and local residents, among others, for inconsistent and confusing statements about the safety hazards of the chemical spill.
The chemical company spill tainted the water supplied by West Virginia American Water.
Last week, Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, the largest in West Virginia, told the Los Angeles Times that officials had confused residents by first assuring them drinking water was safe -- but then issuing safety warnings for pregnant women and re-starting deliveries of bottled water.
Gupta said his family was not using its tap water, which still tasted and smelled of licorice, a trait of MCHM. He said doctors in the area were advising patients not to use their tap water. Authorities temporarily closed several schools last week after a licorice taste was reported.
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