Slurry mix spills, flows into Freeman Creek
Published: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 18, 2011 at 10:51 p.m.
Dr. David Hinton enjoys the beauty of Freeman Creek when he works on his farm in the northeast corner of Tuscaloosa County.
But on Friday afternoon, he noticed something wasn’t right.
“I was off Friday afternoon and was spending some time on a tractor,” he said. “When I looked at the creek, it looked like there was an oil spill.”
Hinton went down to the creek to examine the water, and discovered that despite its appearance, it did not have a oily feel. Still, the normally clear creek was murky and full of discolored sediment, he said.
The sediment was slurry, a waste by-product from coal mining.
The slurry came from just over the county line in southern Fayette County, where Brookwood-based Jim Walter Resources was legally pumping the watery sediment into an abandoned area of an underground coal mine. When the pumping equipment malfunctioned, the slurry spilled into an unnamed creek and flowed into Freeman Creek, a tributary of North River.
Some of the slurry flowed into the river, but none has been detected in Lake Tuscaloosa, said Scott Hughes, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
Lake Tuscaloosa, which was created by damming North River, provides drinking water for the city of Tuscaloosa. The water gets treated when it is pulled from the river and before it is distributed to customers. Hughes said ADEM notified the Tuscaloosa Water Department so it could monitor water at its intake, but he said no problems were reported and the water remains unaffected and safe to drink.
Hughes said Jim Walter Resources has a permit to pump the slurry into the underground cavern. The cavern is part of the Chevron Mining property purchased last year by Jim Walter Resources.
He said the pumping of the slurry into vacated mining areas is an approved method for disposing of the waste by-product, which is about 75 percent water and 25 percent fine rock particles left behind by coal processing.
ADEM’s report indicated a clog might have occurred during the pumping, causing the slurry to back up. Sensors on the equipment normally would have automatically shut down the system but they failed, he said.
Michael Monahan, director of corporate communications for Tampa, Fla.-based Walter Energy, which owns Jim Walter Resources, said the problem was discovered before noon Friday and the pump was immediately shut down. ADEM and the Alabama Surface Mining Commission were notified and work began to contain and clean up the spill.
Jim Walter is paying for the containment and cleanup. That effort included building berms to contain the slurry and using hay bales to absorb it.
Monahan said about a dozen vacuum trucks have been sent to the area to clean up the spill.
The pumping started over the weekend.
Hinton, a Tuscaloosa physician, said he returned to his farm on Sunday. “When we got there, there were four tanker trucks that were pumping (the slurry) at Freeman Creek,” he said.
A worker told him the crews started vacuuming there about 9 a.m. Saturday.
Hughes said there has been some discoloration of the water in North River.
“It’s visual, but we have not seen any fish kill,” he said. “We will continue to monitor for that.” The state agency also will continue to monitor water and soil that might have been affected by the spill to make sure there are no environmental problems, he said.
Meanwhile, on Monday afternoon, Nelson Brook of Black Warrior Riverkeeper was headed to the area to independently survey the situation.
Black Warrior Riverkeeper is a nonprofit environmental organization that works to restore and protect the Black Warrior River and its tributaries.