Coal Company to Pay $27.5M In Fines For Polluting U.S. Waterways

The second largest coal producer in the United States was ordered to pay a $27.5 million fine this week, as part of a settlement with the federal government over water pollution stemming from its mines in five states.   

The settlement agreement was announced Wednesday between the Justice Department and Alpha Natural Resources in federal court in Charleston, West Virginia to satisfy a lawsuit against the company for violating the Clean Water Act.

In addition to the fine, Alpha and 66 of its subsidiaries will install and operate wastewater systems which are expected to cost more than $200 million. The system upgrades are designed to help reduce discharges of pollution from coal mines. The company is expected to install adequate processing systems and implement appropriate water handling and management plans to avoid future pollution.

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The settlement covers Alpha’s 79 active mines and 25 processing plants. Nearly 6,300 violations were documented against the company between 2006 to 2013. Pollutants discharged by the coal plants include iron, aluminum, selenium and manganese which affected fish and other wildlife.

The toxic spills from Alpha’s coal mines included nearly 800 outfall pipes affecting rivers, waterways and tributaries in five states, including Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

It also includes water pollution from coal, coal mines and from coal processing plants where the coal is shipped from. However, there is no evidence linking the pollution to contaminated drinking water, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The court documents allege the violations occurred as a result of Alpha’s failure to operate the existing treatment systems properly, leaving skeptics to worry whether the new treatment facilities will actually make a difference. The pollution from past discharges exceeded discharge limits by as much as 35 times.

The settlement is the largest fine ever levied concerning water pollution, covering the greatest number of violations seen.

Overall, Alpha operates 700 state water discharge permits with more than 5,000 different discharge points. More than half of the violations stemmed from discharges from Massey Energy locations, a company acquired by Alpha in 2011.

Alpha’s senior vice president of environmental affairs says the company’s combined total water quality compliance rate for last year reached 99.8%. The company claims the violations in question were reported by the company to environmental regulation officials.

Of the nearly $30 million settlement, half will be given to the federal government. The remaining portion will be split between the five states affected by the pollutants.

Concerns continue to mount surrounding contaminated water resulting from wastewater spills and untreated water discharges.

Recent Coal Chemical Spills Raise Concerns

The Alpha settlement comes only three months after the water supply in and around Charleston West Virginia was deemed undrinkable after a major spill of a coal cleaning chemicals in the Elk River.

The West Virginia spill left more than 300,000 people without drinkable water, and th company linked to the spill, Freedom Industries, has declared bankruptcy and faces numerous toxic tort lawsuits.

In early February, a coal ash spill at a Duke Energy power plant affected parts of the Dan River in North Carolina. The spill, resulting from a broken pipe underneath the plant, contaminated the water with high levels of arsenic.

Local residents were warned to avoid contact with the water.  Later in February, Duke Energy announced a pipe at a retired goal plant was also releasing untreated wastewater into the river, causing further contamination.

Coal mining and burning coal for electricity are the largest sources of water pollution in the country.

Photo by Steve Alexander, Courtesy of USFWS/Southeast via Flickr Creative Commons

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