Appalachian Coal Companies Face Major Water Pollution Fines

By Brian Sewell

In March, two federal enforcement actions against Appalachian coal companies called attention to the pervasive threat of water pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining.

First, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached a $27.5 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources — the largest mountaintop removal mining operator in the U.S. — for violations of the Clean Water Act. It is the largest-ever civil penalty under the water pollution permitting section of the law.

The government complaint alleged that between 2006 and 2013, Bristol, Va.-based Alpha and its subsidiaries routinely violated limits in more than 300 of its state-issued Clean Water Act permits, discharging excess amounts of pollutants into hundreds of rivers and streams in five Appalachian states. In some cases, the company discharged pollutants without a permit.

In addition to the record-setting fine, Alpha said it will spend approximately $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and reduce pollution discharges at its coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Just two days after Alpha’s announcement, Nally & Hamilton Enterprises, one of the largest coal companies in Kentucky, announced it would pay $666,000 for Clean Water Act violations.

Prosecutors allege that Nally & Hamilton dumped mining waste in streams 1,000 feet beyond permit boundaries at a site in Harlan County, Ky. Like Alpha, the company is also accused of dumping waste into streams without a permit.

The settlements send “a strong deterrent that such egregious violations of the nation’s Clean Water Act will not be tolerated,” says Robert G. Dreher, an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Groups that oppose mountaintop removal, such as nonprofit law group Appalachian Mountain Advocates, agree that the actions are a positive step, but say that consent agreements and higher fines do not go far enough to provide peace of mind for coal-impacted communities.

Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, told The New York Times that to solve the fundamental problem of pollution inherent in mountaintop removal, the EPA must “stop issuing permits that it knows coal companies can’t comply with.”


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment