A leaking dam in Letcher County that hadn’t been inspected by Kentucky’s state regulators for more than a decade points to a larger potential problem in eastern Kentucky, dam safety officials said.
There are likely thousands of old sediment ponds at surface mines that the state dam inspection office doesn’t know about, Marilyn C. Thomas, an environmental engineer with the state Dam Safety Section, told the Lexington Herald-Leader.
Many are so small the agency wouldn’t inspect them even if it knew where they were, and they represent little danger. But others might pose a potential hazard to people and property.
“These things are all over the place,” said Scott Phelps, supervisor of the state dam-inspection program. “That’s what scares me the most — we’re going to have one of these things turn loose.”
In Letcher County, some residents feared the leaking earthen dam could collapse and flood homes. The agency that oversees surface mining had released the dam from oversight, and the separate state agency that inspects dams didn’t know it existed.
“It was just sitting up there deteriorating,” Thomas said.
After recent heavy rains, Letcher County Judge-Executive Jim Ward declared an imminent hazard at the pond in the Company Branch hollow, 3 or 4 miles from Whitesburg, the Lexington newspaper reported.
Search and rescue team members went door to door recently in the area below the dam to conduct a voluntary evacuation, notifying more than 150 homeowners of the potential threat.
Ward used heavy equipment to dig a trench in the dam, draining water in a controlled way and easing pressure on the embankment.
Karen L. Wilson, chief of staff in the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, said the pond in Letcher County was not large enough to qualify for regular inspections by the Division of Water, which includes the dam safety office.
That means the Department for Natural Resources, which oversees surface mining, would not have notified DOW about the pond when the mining agency released it from oversight in 1998, nor would DOW have inspected it, Wilson said.
The pond is called a sediment, or silt, pond.
Coal companies build sediment ponds as part of surface-mining operations. The ponds are designed to hold water draining off the mine area above, controlling the flow and allowing dirt in the runoff to settle out, instead of hurting water quality by going into creeks.
The state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement inspects such ponds while a mine is active and during the time the company is reclaiming the area, which can take years.
But when mining regulators are satisfied that the coal company has properly reclaimed the land, control of the site reverts to the landowner. If there are sediment ponds left on the property, the surface-mining agency no longer inspects them.
There was a period from the 1980s until 2002 when there was no formal system for the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement to notify the Division of Water that it had released the bond on a site with a permanent sediment pond that it would no longer inspect.
There was an informal process to provide that notice, Wilson said.
The surface-mining agency has been providing information on sediment ponds routinely since 2002, when it and the Division of Water signed an agreement to inspect permanent ponds together when a coal company applies for a final bond release.
Thousands of ponds might have been released from state oversight before the agreement, however.
“Whole lot of stuff out there we don’t know about,” Thomas said.
The sediment pond in Letcher County that caused concern was part of an area released from oversight in 1998 by the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement.
After that, state reclamation inspectors had no jurisdiction over it.
Lyndon Jensen, who lives in the hollow about a quarter of a mile below the site, said he first started complaining about problems with the pond a year ago.
A culvert in the embankment, designed to drain water so it wouldn’t flow over the top of the dam, had rusted, letting water erode the earthen dam, Jensen said.
Water was leaking through the front of the dam, he said.
“That was a major concern of everyone in our hollow,” said Jensen, who surveyed land for coal companies before becoming disabled with back problems.
A sediment pond in the hollow failed in 1980, releasing a gush of water that knocked a house off its foundation, which added to the concern, Jensen said.
Jensen said he talked to state and federal mining inspectors about the pond beginning in the summer of 2008, but they said it was the landowner’s responsibility to fix the structure.
The site is owned by Letcher County Land Co., a land- and mineral-holding company.
Jensen said he talked with one of the owners, Mark Adams of Ashland, who said he would check with the coal company that has the land leased.
Adams said he talked with state mining regulators about the pond, but was told inspectors had not reported any problems with the dam.
Ward surmised that inspectors were talking about another dam, Adams said.
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