Sludge remains water concern

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 21, 2000

City officials remain watchful of the thick coal sludge still threatening the Ohio River.

Saturday, October 21, 2000

City officials remain watchful of the thick coal sludge still threatening the Ohio River.

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"We thought it would already have been here but it’s still near the Big Sandy," said Jennifer Donahue, Ironton water superintendent.

"We’re keeping a watch on it daily," she said Saturday.

A rising stage on the Ohio River was preventing its quick flow from the Big Sandy into the Ohio.

The city plans to test a sample of the "black water" created by the sludge when it’s available.

"We’ll see how it settles, which gives us an indication of its treatability," Mrs. Donahue said. "And we’re staying in contact with Ashland, Ky., (water officials)."

Preliminary testing of water from the Big Sandy indicates the sludge is treatable by Ironton’s plant, she said.

So, although the city is taking a wait-and-see attitude, there is no reason to panic, she said.

If the worst happens – sludge so thick it cannot undergo the treatment process – Ironton will fall back on its three-day supply of water until the sludge passes in the Ohio, Mayor Bob Cleary said.

That has happened in several Kentucky communities that rely solely on the Big Sandy for drinking water. And West Virginia officials shut down the Kenova, W.Va., plant.

Ashland announced it would ferry water by barge upriver of the Big Sandy down to the treatment plant intake if necessary.

Since Oct. 11, work crews have been trying to clean up the molasses-like coal waste material – 250 million gallons of it – that leaked from a retention pond at Martin County Coal Corp.’s coal preparation plant in Inez, Ky.

The sludge oozed like black lava along two mountain streams into the Big Sandy River.

The spill is moving slowly downstream; its leading edge was detected Friday in the Ohio River, three miles downstream from the mouth of the Big Sandy.

”The spill has only moved three miles in two days,” said Rhonda Barnes of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an eight-state compact that monitors river pollutants.

”At this point, the effects on the Ohio River are unknown,” Mrs. Barnes said. ”We have never dealt with a spill of this magnitude.”

Investigators ”are still speculating on the cause,” said Mark Mackowiak, a Coast Guard petty officer and spokesman for the federal cleanup team.

The best explanation, so far, is that the settling pond collapsed into abandoned mine tunnels, he said.

Heavy metals – including mercury, lead, arsenic, copper and chromium – have been found in the sludge. The metals settle in ponds used to hold waste from the coal cleaning process.

The metals ”pose no hazard to public water supplies with full treatment,” Mackowiak said.

Unlike an oil spill, in which the pollutant floats on the water, the coal sludge has choked about 70 miles of waterways with a lava-like fluid, said Kentucky Natural Resources Secretary James Bickford.

Cleanup crews have tried vacuum trucks, makeshift dams using bales of straw as filters and skimming booms – all with limited success.

”Petroleum stays on top of the water. It can be skimmed; it can be ‘boomed,”’ Bickford said. ”This stuff is top to bottom, bank to bank.”

The suspended solids present the most pressing threat to water supplies, according to a news release issued by the federal and state response team.

”High turbidity levels can smother aquatic life,” the release said. It ”also has caused difficulty at water treatment facilities because the suspended material clogs the filter systems.”