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Coal Impoundment Project Researchers Conduct Water Quality Field Study

December 2005
A group of Mingo County (W.Va.) citizens is one step closer to having a solution to an extensive problem with the community’s drinking water.

Thanks to a $35,000 grant from the New York-based Altria Foundation, researchers with the Coal Impoundment Project at Wheeling Jesuit University are conducting follow-up studies to determine the source of contamination in well water that is used by approximately 500 Williamson families.

This work comes on the heels of an in-depth study (conducted in January and April 2004 in response to complaints about the water quality) that revealed significant metals contamination at concentrations well beyond what should be used as a water source.

Area households had consistently reported periodic “blackwater” events in their well water; fixtures that corroded within two years; stains on porcelain, walls, clothing and dishes; and health problems including cancer and kidney stones, explained J. Davitt McAteer, Director of the Coal Impoundment Project and Vice President for Sponsored Programs at Wheeling Jesuit University.  Residents attributed these problems to the nearby Sprouse Creek Slurry Impoundment.

In the original study, samples from 15 wells located within two air miles of the Sprouse Creek impoundment were tested for seven heavy metals regulated by Environmental Protection Agency primary* drinking water standards, and five metals regulated by secondary** standards.

Water quality sampling followed the protocol as mandated by the Water Quality Laboratory at Heidelberg (Ohio) College. The laboratory was chosen to do the testing based on cost comparisons and its extensive water-sampling program.

Water was taken from several sources: the wells themselves, kitchen taps, a spring that is used as a supply source, a municipal source originating from the Williamson water treatment plant, and a hot water heater. Sampling locations were chosen geospatially to obtain representative wells in the four sub-watersheds.

Test results revealed the presence of black particles and metal concentrations that often exceed federal drinking water standards. Excessive levels of heavy metals, particularly lead and arsenic, may present a chronic health hazard to families exposed to wells.

The metals are commonly associated with coal-mining activities, and the levels found in the water may be confounded by historic mining practices or exacerbated by recent drilling activities. The level of iron and manganese indicates that Williamson-area wells may be subjected to coal slurry contamination. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, coal slurry has been injected into deep mines in the area since the 1980s, and a 1995 West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection study indicates that some of the wells along lower Lick Creek, near Williamson, might have residue from slurry injection.

A comparison of Williamson-area well water with available data from domestic wells in neighboring counties of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky indicates that the Williamson wells have the poorest water quality in the coalfield region.

In its follow-up studies, the project team completed field work in the summer of 2005. This included sampling 50 wells, 80 stream sites and several springs that are sources
of drinking water.

In addition, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources redid its previous health consultation in the Williamson area and concluded that the water quality was a public health concern. U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., has asked the West Virginia Public Service Commission to issue a final order for a proposed water project for the area to move forward. Subsequently, a feasibility study has been conducted, and bids have been solicited.

The study is one of the many accomplishments of the Coal Impoundment Project research team during 2005. The study is featured in the project’s 2004-2005 Annual Report.

The Coal Impoundment Project is a  pilot project that was developed by the National Technology Transfer Center, the Center for Educational Technologies®, Wheeling Jesuit University, West Virginia University and the National Energy Technology Laboratory, and funded through the efforts of Sen. Byrd.  It is designed to identify coal impoundments in West Virginia, alert residents of emergency situations and evacuation plans, improve safety and examine alternatives for impounding coal waste and sludge in the Mountain State.  The program is under the leadership of J. Davitt McAteer, Vice President for Sponsored Programs at Wheeling Jesuit University and former chief of the U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Much of the first year of the Coal Impoundment Project was dedicated to designing the Coal Impoundment Location and Information System.  The web site is a central location for gathering and posting impoundment information, including the size, capacity, MSHA risk level, evacuation route and emergency contacts, for a majority of the active impoundments in West Virginia. Today, more than 125 coal impoundments are represented on the site.

* The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes a primary standard as “a legally enforceable standard that applies to public water systems” and that protects “drinking water quality by limiting the levels of specific contaminants that can adversely affect public health and are known or anticipated to occur in water.”

** The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes a secondary standard as “a non-enforceable guideline regarding contaminants that may cause cosmetic effects (such as skin or tooth discoloration) or aesthetic effects (such as taste, odor or color) in drinking water.”

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