Fly ash may pose dangers

Mine disposal creates risks for adventurers; leaching from deposits feared.
(Oklahoma) — Caves and abandoned mines north of Fort Gibson often lure explorers who go around barricades to get a peek inside.

Dustin Moore of Fort Gibson has been there. However, now that he realizes some of the dangers, he said he won’t go back.

A Fort Gibson man was found in about 20 feet of water in one of the old mines last month. Three firefighters who had been in the water searching for him had to be decontaminated because of the acidic content of the water, said Derek Tatum, Muskogee fire chief.

Moore said he has heard of several people sustaining chemical burns from being in the water in the old mines. He said he and a friend who went into the mines both became ill the next day. And, in both the mines and caves, there are steep drop-offs. In addition, when the fly ash in the mine gets wet, it turns into a slippery mess that increases the danger of falling.

There’s also the danger of things in the old mines falling, he said.

The mines are not strip pits, but more like layered caves, dug many years ago for the excavation of limestone, said Scott Thompson, with the land protection division, of an area of an old rock quarry that was abandoned in the 1970s.

The Fort Gibson mines have been used for many years as a disposal site for fly ash, a waste product from the burning of coal at the OG&E generating plant east of Muskogee.

Serene Jweied, director of communications for Lafarge North America, the company that holds the contract with OG&E for fly ash disposal, wrote in an e-mail that Lafarge is a part of the effort to “promote sustainability and ensure that we are able to beneficially reuse waste as we produce the materials needed in various construction and infrastructure projects.”

The fly ash from the OG&E plant is used either by Lafarge or sold to other operations as a cementitious material, Jweied said.

Fly ash that is not used or sold by Lafarge is mixed with water and solidifies into a concrete-like substance that is used in the reclamation of the old mines near Fort Gibson, Jweied wrote. Lafarge manages approximately 50,000 tons of fly ash per year.

Moore said there has been so much fly ash dumped in the old mines that the satellite photos of the area on Google Earth show large white areas where the earth above the mine caves has collapsed.

He said he not only fears for the safety of those going into the old mines, but also for the safety of those drinking water from the nearby Grand River, that he is afraid chemicals might leach from the mines into the water supply.

Fly ash contains many elements, including silica, arsenic, chromium and nickel, but generally not in large enough concentrations to pose a threat, Thompson said.

Thompson said it is unlikely the fly ash dumped in the mines would affect the water supply of area towns.

Muskogee’s water intake is above the dam, from Fort Gibson Lake. The town of Fort Gibson takes its water from Grand River, downstream from the mines. Their annual reports on water quality show no extraordinary levels of arsenic or the other chemicals commonly found in fly ash.

Jweied said Lafarge takes samples from the OG&E Muskogee plant daily and sends them to its lab in Kansas City, Mo. The samples are tested quarterly by another lab for metals leachability.

“We are pleased to report there have been no cases where the samples exceeded the standard of leachability, ensuring that any compounds of concern are prevented from leaving the site,” Jweied said.

By: Liz McMahan

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