Buckhannon City Attorney Tom O'Neill addresses council at its Aug. 17 meeting. / Photo by Katie Kuba

July coal spill damages one of Buckhannon’s two raw water pumps; city in discussions with United Coal over payment

BUCKHANNON – The more than 4,000 tons of coal that spilled into the Buckhannon River during a major rain event in July seriously damaged one of the Buckhannon Water Treatment Plant’s two raw water pumps, and city officials plan to hold the coal company accountable, they said at city council’s most recent meeting.

Approximately 4,500 tons of stockpiled ‘clean coal’ washed into the river when infrastructure designed to prevent spillage at the Carter Roag Mine Facility in Randolph County near Helvetia collapsed during a torrential rainstorm Saturday, July 15, according to a previous article.

The City of Buckhannon operates the only water treatment facility in Upshur County, and treated water is then supplied to Public Service Districts to distribute throughout the county via their infrastructure.

At city council’s Aug. 17 meeting, city attorney Tom O’Neill said officials have been engaged in discussions with United Coal Company.

“The coal spill from the United Coal Company facility up at Carter Roag caused damage to one of our two water pumps at the Water Treatment Plant, and we’ve forwarded a letter to the coal company basically stating our claim and our expectation that the coal company will take responsibility for the damages,” he said.

O’Neill said in the aftermath of the spill, “the fine coal matter – the particulate matter” was taken into Pump Number 2 and caused that pump to fail.

“The coal company notified neither the city nor the state of West Virginia in sufficient time for us to take that pump offline, which could have avoided the damage,” he added.

Mayor Robbie Skinner said Buckhannon did not receive the rain at the same rate it fell where the Carter Roag facility is located.

“That was not felt down here,” Skinner said. “We did not get that rain, so we would have relied on reporting from the company or the State of West Virginia, but that did not happen.”

According to a previous story, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection told My Buckhannon it issued the company three citations for failing to notify the spill hotline within 24 hours of the incident, failing to maintain control structures, and causing conditions not allowable in state waters.

“The city’s position, at least as expressed by me, is that the coal company is fully responsible for the damage to that pump and that we will hold them responsible for the repair to the damage or ultimately the replacement of that pump,” O’Neill said.

Steptoe & Johnson attorneys representing United Coal Company had contacted the city to arrange for the company’s engineers to visit the damaged pump at the water treatment plant on Monday, Aug. 21, according to O’Neill.

“I don’t want to mince any words here – we’re going to hold their feet to the fire,” O’Neill told council. “The city is not going to [pay] for any kind of financial damage as a result of their negligence.”

Following the meeting, O’Neill said three issues are at play.

“There is the repair of the damage for immediate purposes, and in the long term, the pump may need to be completely replaced,” he said. “Third is water quality issues and any chemicals they’ve had to add related to the spill.”

“I don’t have any reason to believe that they’re not going to be cooperative at this point,” O’Neill added, “but I said it the way I said it tonight because I want to make sure we laid out that this is our problem, but it’s not our fault. It’s their fault.”

City finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said Monday that United Coal/Carter Roag Coal Company representatives had visited the pump on Aug. 21 to see the damage sustained.

“They have been very receptive,” Jenkins said. “We’re still assessing, so at this point, we’re not sure if we are going to need to order replacement parts or purchase an entirely new pump.” 

Jenkins estimated repairs or a replacement could cost anywhere from $20,000 to $130,000.

This week, Buckhannon Water Department Superintendent Kelly Arnold said that despite the department initially having to adjust quantities of several chemicals due to a higher pH in the water, the water remains – and always has been – safe to drink.

“The pH has settled, and we haven’t found the presence of any heavy metals in either our testing or the DEP’s testing,” Arnold said Wednesday.

He said the coal company plans to make an immediate repair by manufacturing one of the pump’s parts that’s obsolete and can no longer be purchased.

“Ultimately, we are probably looking at a new one (pump),” he said.

An email requesting comments from a representative with United Coal Company was not immediately returned.

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