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Thursday, May 23, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Record Fine for Dirty Coal Companies

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (CN) - One of the nation's largest coal producers will pay $27.5 million in fines for polluting Appalachian waters, and another $200 million to remediate its operations, according to a proposed federal settlement.

The United States sued Alpha Natural Resources, Alpha Appalachia Holdings and 66 subsidiaries in Federal Court for water pollution violations at their mines in five Appalachian states.

West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Alpha Natural Resources, based in Bristol, Va., is one of the largest coal companies in the United States. It operates 79 active coal mines and 25 coal processing plants in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Wyoming operations are not mentioned in the lawsuit or settlement.

In 2011, Alpha Appalachia took over the Richmond-based Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 miners in April 2010, in the worst such disaster in the country in 40 years. Massey paid $20 million in water pollution fines under a 2008 settlement, the highest amount in history before this week's Alpha settlement.

The government claims that between 2006 and 2013 Alpha and its subsidiaries routinely violated limits in 336 of its state-issued Clear Water Act permits, discharging excessive amounts of pollutants into hundreds of rivers and streams in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The violations included discharge of pollutants without a permit, according to the complaint.

The U.S. EPA documented at least 6,289 violations of limits for pollutants that include iron, pH levels, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese and selenium, at hundreds of discharge points.

Monitoring records showed that multiple pollutants were discharged in amounts more than twice the limit on many occasions.

Under the Clean Water Act, states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may issue permits for the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters within certain limits. The EPA may seek civil penalties of up to $37,500 per day for violations occurring after January 2009.

The government claims most violations stemmed from Alpha's failure to properly operate treatment systems, install adequate treatment systems, and implement water handling and management plans.

It sought an injunction and civil penalties for Clean Water Act permit violations.

Alpha entered into a consent decree with the EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice and the three plaintiff states, agreeing to pay $27.5 million in civil penalties, to be divided among the federal government and state agencies. The company also agreed to implement an integrated environmental management system and an expanded auditing/reporting protocol, among other measures.

Gene Kitts, Alpha's senior vice president of environmental affairs, said the company had excellent compliance rates even before the agreement.

"This consent decree provides a framework for our efforts to become fully compliant with our environmental permits, specifically under the Clean Water Act," Kitts said in a statement. "Our combined total water quality compliance rate for 2013 was 99.8 percent. That's a strong record of compliance, particularly considering it's based on more than 665,000 chances to miss a daily or monthly average limit. But our goal is to do even better, and the consent decree provides an opportunity to proactively focus on improving on the less than 1 percent of the time that permit limits were exceeded."

(Based on Kitts's 99.8 percent compliance claim with 665,000 daily or monthly limits, he essentially acknowledged 1,330 monthly or daily violations.)

Kitts said there was no release of a chemical or impact upon public drinking water, unlike the recent incidents in North Carolina and West Virginia.

On Jan. 9, a chemical leak from a Freedom Industries-owned storage tank outside of Charleston, W.Va. polluted drinking water for about 300,000 residents, according to news reports.

Two other spills followed in February: on Feb. 2, an estimated 82,000 tons of coal ash spilled into the Dan River from a shuttered Duke Energy Corp. coal-burning power plant in Eden, N.C.; and on Feb. 12, 108,000 gallons of coal slurry waste leaked from a failed seal at Patriot Coal Corp.'s Kanawha Eagle Prep Plant near Winifrede, W. Va.

The EPA estimates that the upgrades and advanced treatment required by the Alpha settlement will reduce discharges of total dissolved solids by more than 36 million pounds each year, and will cut metals and other pollutants by approximately 9 million pounds per year.

"The unprecedented size of the civil penalty in this settlement sends a strong deterrent message to others in this industry that such egregious violations of the nation's Clean Water Act will not be tolerated," Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, said in an email statement. "Today's agreement is good news for communities across Appalachia, who have too often been vulnerable to polluters who disregard the law. It holds Alpha accountable and will bring increased compliance and transparency among Alpha and its many subsidiaries."

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