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AP: Alpha to Pay $27.5 Million Fine in Coal-Tainted Water Deal

By: The Associated Press Email
By: The Associated Press Email

WASHINGTON (AP) -- One of the nation's largest coal producers will pay a $27.5 million fine and is set to spend $200 million to reduce illegal toxic discharges into waterways across five Appalachian states.

The proposed settlement is the largest ever of its kind. Alpha Natural Resources released a statement Wednesday.

“This consent decree provides a framework for our efforts to become fully compliant with our environmental permits, specifically under the Clean Water Act,” said Alpha Senior Vice President of Environmental Affairs Gene Kitts. “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.”

“This settlement is the result of state and federal agencies working together to protect local communities from pollution by enforcing the law,” said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “By requiring reforms and a robust compliance program, we are helping to ensure coal mining in Appalachia follows environmental laws that protect public health.”

The Associated Press obtained details before the settlement involving Alpha Natural Resources Inc. was filed in court in West Virginia.

In total, EPA documented at least 6,289 violations of permit limits for pollutants that include iron, pH, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese, selenium, and salinity. These violations occurred at 794 different discharge points, or outfalls. Monitoring records also showed that multiple pollutants were discharged in amounts of more than twice the permitted limit on many occasions. Most violations stemmed from the company’s failure to properly operate existing treatment systems, install adequate treatment systems, and implement appropriate water handling and management plans.

The government says they discharged heavy metals harmful to fish and other wildlife directly into rivers and streams.

The companies agreed to take measures to reduce discharges from 79 active coal mines and 25 processing plants in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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

In addition to paying the penalty, the companies must build and operate treatment systems to eliminate violations of selenium and salinity limits, and also implement comprehensive, system-wide improvements to ensure future compliance with the CWA. These improvements, which apply to all of Alpha’s operations in Appalachia, include developing and implementing an environmental management system and periodic internal and third-party environmental compliance audits.

The companies must also maintain a database to track violations and compliance efforts at each outfall, significantly improve the timeliness of responding to violations, and consult with third party experts to solve problem discharges. In the event of future violations, the companies will be required to pay stipulated penalties, which may be increased and, in some cases, doubled for continuing violations.

“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,” said Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “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.”

Statement from Alpha Natural Resources, Inc.
“This consent decree provides a framework for our efforts to become fully compliant with our environmental permits, specifically under the Clean Water Act,” said Alpha Senior Vice President of Environmental Affairs Gene Kitts. “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.”

To that end, Kitts noted that many of the consent decree measures were put in place ahead of reaching the agreement. For example, the company has already expanded its audit program and the enhanced environmental database was launched across the organization in January 2013.

The consent decree covers the years 2006 to 2013. Since 2006, Alpha has twice doubled in size by merging with or acquiring other public mining companies, and its affiliates have amassed more than 700 state water discharge permits covering 5,000 discharge points.

“For an organization our size and with as varied a group of mining operations and permit conditions as we have, our people do an outstanding job in maintaining environmental compliance,” said Kitts. “This settlement will provide a consistent structure to our efforts to become even better in preventing incidents and in responding quickly to situations where permit limits are exceeded.”

Kitts noted that incidents in West Virginia and North Carolina have understandably focused attention on the importance of protecting the nation’s water.

“The public expects that regulators ensure that water quality is protected and that companies comply with their permits,” said Kitts. “That’s the way it should be. We respect and support that, and understand the concerns that these events have raised, yet there are distinct differences between those events and what we’re talking about here.”

Kitts noted, for example, that there was no release of a chemical or impact to public drinking water – as happened with the Charleston incident. Alpha’s consent decree is related primarily to naturally occurring elements – such as iron, manganese, aluminum, and selenium. Mining operations require the movement of large amounts of earth that contain these elements. Permit limits are sometimes exceeded when rainwater or groundwater transport the elements into an operation’s water discharge during mining operations. Water discharge limitations are generally set at levels that are protective of aquatic life, which most often are more stringent than levels necessary to be protective of human health.

The state agencies represented in the decree are the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The decree has been filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. It is subject to a public comment period and must be approved by the court before it becomes effective.


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