Harrison Co. first responder: Coal slurry soupy, milkshake-like - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Harrison Co. first responder: Coal slurry soupy, milkshake-like

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This image was taken Nov. 29 by the state Department of Environmental Protection and was marked up by DEP since Friday's accident. This image was taken Nov. 29 by the state Department of Environmental Protection and was marked up by DEP since Friday's accident.
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Updates are few and far between from officials on the scene at the Harrison County coal slurry impoundment where a Consol Energy miner has been missing since Friday.

At last word, from 4 p.m. Sunday, the bulldozer the miner was operating when the embankment slid into the impoundment at the Robinson Run preparation plant had possibly been located.

Search crews were trying to "outline and confirm" its location 25 to 35 feet below the surface of the impoundment, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere wrote in an email.

MSHA was on site through the weekend following the embankment failure that took place around noon on Friday, along with company officials, the state Department of Environmental Protection and others.

Divers had been on site for two days but it was announced on Sunday that the slurry was too thick for diving.

"It's like jumping into mud," said Dennis Boyles, regulatory program specialist in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement's Charleston Field Office.

OSM shares responsibility for various aspects of impoundments with MSHA at the federal level and, at the state level, with WVDEP and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. Boyles is keeping up with the situation in Harrison County and, although he has not been to the site, described the nature of slurry impoundments in general.

"You may have 12 feet you'd consider somewhat liquid but you have these fines floating in it so it's not like water," Boyles said. "You probably can't see (into) the first two to three feet. It's not like jumping in the Kanawha River. No visibility. It makes recovery extremely difficult — that's why they're using sonar."

The new plan Sunday afternoon, with diving ruled out, was to use sheet pilings to surround and isolate the dozer, according to Louviere, to make it possible for divers to get to the dozer and recover the missing miner.

She has not yet provided further detail on how the searchers plan to make the liquid within the isolated area clear enough to dive in.

The place where bulldozer is believed to have been located is about 400 feet from the edge, Boyles said.

"Imagine if they're 400 feet out, with the instability, how hard that is to work in," he said. "With the refuse around it, that makes it even harder. If you're down 20 feet in slurry, even harder."

What the company was doing, Boyles explained, was building up the embankment in order to be able to add more slurry to the impoundment.

The pool elevation is currently at about 1,255 feet above sea level, he said. The natural ground level in the area where the failure occurred is 1,268 feet, and the company wanted to build it to 1,310 feet.

They were building up the edge of the impoundment by pushing "coarse refuse" — larger, rocky material that is removed when the coal that has been mined is cleaned — out into the pool area to create a wide foundation that they would build further up on, Boyles said.

"During the initial construction they keep pushing the coarse refuse out, pushing out, pushing out until it goes all the way to the bottom and then you stack more on top of it," Boyles said. "You're basically pushing it almost into a swimming pool so it gets saturated and apparently they had overextended it and that's the reason that this portion collapsed," — not an official evaluation of what happened, but a general assessment from a distance.

During construction, the day-to-day regulatory oversight responsibility is DEP's and MSHA's, Boyles said, and that was affirmed by DEP spokesperson Kathy Cosco.

Two engineers who also were carried down into the slurry when the embankment collapsed were rescued, treated at area hospitals and released on Friday.

"It's indeed a scary situation," said Paul Bump, director of the Harrison County Bureau of Emergency Services, who was at the site on Friday along with numerous other local first responders.

"It truly was a type of situation that nobody up there has ever experienced before," Bump said. "It certainly wasn't a typical water rescue. Every little whipstitch you found another obstacle: unstable ground, almost a soupy, into a milkshake consistency."

MSHA conducted a family briefing at noon on Sunday but the names of the victims have not yet been released.

At last word from Consol, the operation of the mine was suspended and would be re-evaluated shift by shift.