Alpha Natural Resources, one of the country’s largest producers of thermal coal, agreed to a $27.5 million fine along with an additional $200 million used to clean up their coal plants and mines throughout the Appalachian region. The company is accused of polluting streams, rivers, tributaries and waterways with coal ash and other byproducts on numerous occasions.
The settlement includes the largest fine ever imposed for water pollution violations. Water pollution is a serious problem, and the recent incident involving the chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River has reinforced the importance of holding companies accountable for their actions. Although the Elk River spill has since been cleaned up, the state continues to suffer from lower tourism as a result of the incident.
According to officials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Alpha Natural Resources and over a dozen of its subsidiaries violated water pollution limits an estimated 6,000 times between 2006 and 2013. The lawsuit claims the coal-producing company drained heavy metals, toxins and chemicals into 800 pipes which led directly to nearby water sources. The good news is that none of the 6,000 violations were believed to have contaminated drinking water.
Most of the allegations against Alpha Natural Resources include the company’s failure to properly maintain functional wastewater treatment facilities. Rather than treating their coal byproducts, they simply drained it into nearby streams, rivers and tributaries. Some of the pollutants Alpha Natural Resources is believed to have released into nearby water sources include aluminum, selenium, iron and manganese.
It’s likely West Virginia’s chemical spill prompted the EPA to take a more aggressive approach towards the protection of our nation’s waterways. Allowing companies to continue to violating water permits without consequence sends the wrong message. And in this case, Alpha Natural Resources had a mind-blowing 6,000 violations in just a 7-year period.
“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 U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.
It’s also important to note that the lawsuit placed against Alpha Natural Resources was civil, not criminal. Along with the $27.5 million fine and the additional $200 required to clean up their act, the company must install wastewater treatment facilities at its 79 coal mines and 25 coal plants in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.