Coal slurry pipeline spill sparks concern about aging infrastructure

The latest spill from the Black Mesa coal slurry pipeline highlights the concern of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality about the aging infrastructure.

Black Mesa Pipeline detected the latest pipeline leak at 10:30 p.m.

Aug.

6 when monitors detected a sudden loss in pressure.

It was the latest in a series of leaks in the pipeline.

The leak occurred about 10 miles west of Seligman where the pipeline crosses Interstate 40 and was reported to ADEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency at 4 p.m.

Aug.

7.

The company has 24 hours to report leaks to ADEQ and EPA.

The pipeline carries a mixture of water and coal from a Peabody Coal mine on the Navajo Reservation near Kayenta to Laughlin, Nev., passing through Kingman.

The coal slurry fuels the Mohave Generating Station that supplies power to California, Nevada and Arizona.

"The latest spill highlights a source of growing concern for state officials over the environmental impacts of releases from the aging 273-mile pipeline," an ADEQ press release stated.

"We're very concerned about the continued problems with the pipeline and the company's apparent inability to prevent further leaks," Karen Smith, head of ADEQ's Water Quality Division, said.

She said coal slurry is not considered toxic but can damage watersheds and threaten wildlife.

Fred Pennington, president of Black Mesa Pipeline, visited the leak site last week, and the company has a crew standing by to clean up the spill, according to Beth Jensen, company spokeswoman.

She said Pennington has discussed pipeline issues with ADEQ personnel but not Smith

"Following the spill, Black Mesa prepares a cleanup procedure and presents it to ADEQ," she said.

"When they approve it, we move ahead."

Jensen said the movement of coal through a pipeline with water is unique.

The project was put together 30 years ago.

Black Mesa is headquartered in Omaha, Neb., and has been owned by Northern Partners L.P.

since 1996.

Patrick Gibbons, ADEQ media relations manager, said the goal of the agency is to get Black Mesa Pipeline to comply with regulations and to protect the public health.

"It is a 30-year-old facility moving coal and water inside a pipe," Gibbons said.

"It does need significant modernization, although there are several business issues."

Jensen said the pipeline is fully functional and the company will continue maintenance and mentoring through the end of the current contract in 2005.

"Whatever we need to do through the life of the contract with Peabody we will do," Jensen said.

"Regular maintenance will continue."

She said the coal-slurry mix causes abrasion and a unique set of problems.

Black Mesa paid a $128,000 fine in July 2001 resulting from spills.

Jensen said company records show nine reported leaks during the past 12 months.

Two actually were temporary holding ponds for slurry.

She said Black Mesa monitors the pressure in the pipe and inspects it from land and air.

Third parties doing work near the pipeline are sometimes a cause of leaks.

Jensen said Black Mesa is prepared to rebuild 90 percent of the pipeline if the contract with Peabody Coal is extended beyond 2005.

The future of the coal slurry operation is complicated by a series of business decisions that involve the Navajo and Hopi Nations, federal regulators, the Sierra Club, Grand Canyon National Trust, the California Public Utility Commission, ADEQ, the owners of the Mohave Generating Station and state agencies in Arizona and Nevada.

"There are a lot of people involved in a complex series of business and regulatory decisions," Don Hendren, director of community relations at Mohave Generating Station, said.

Southern California Edison, Water and Public Utilities in Los Angeles, Nevada Power and the Salt River Project own the power plant.