Huge Coal Company To Pay Largest-Ever Fine After 6,000 Clean Water Violations In 7 Years

CREDIT: Foo Conner/@iwasaround

Alpha Natural Resources, the third-largest coal company in the U.S., agreed to pay a $27.5 million fine after violating water pollution permits in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Over the last seven years, Alpha and its subsidiaries discharged heavy metals into waterways across those five Appalachian states 6,289 times, through 794 different discharge points, sometimes by as much as 35 times the legal limit.

The pollutants that spilled from the coal mines throughout Appalachia include “iron, pH, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese, selenium, and salinity,” according to an EPA press release.

The giant coal company will also spend $200 million to stop sending toxic discharge into the nations rivers and streams. According to the AP, which obtained details about the settlement on Wednesday, “under the agreement, the mine operators will install wastewater treatment systems and take other measures aimed at reducing discharges from 79 active coal mines and 25 coal-processing plants in those five states.”

Cynthia Giles, who runs the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement office, told the AP that the settlement was “the biggest case for permit violations for numbers of violations and size of the penalty, which reflects the seriousness of violations.”

“This is the largest one, period.”

A big part of the reason this settlement was so comprehensive and expensive is because in 2011, Alpha Natural Resources bought a coal company called Massey Energy. Massey’s coal operations account for more than half of the violations represented in Wednesday’s settlement.

Alpha spent $7.1 billion to purchase Massey, and it has been picking up the pieces ever since. Months after the purchase agreement was announced, Massey was still fighting a legal battle over dumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into old underground coal mines — knowing all the while that the mines leaked into the water supply. Alpha settled the lawsuit with hundreds of West Virginia residents in 2011.

Massey received global headlines for the tragic explosion in 2010 that killed 29 miners, and stayed in the headlines as Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s confrontational relationship with safety regulators prompted shareholder calls for his resignation. In 2009, Blankenship called the idea that safety regulators cared more about coal miners than he did “as silly as global warming.” This despite the small world encompassing coal industry and coal regulators: President Bush appointed a former Massey official to an MSHA review commission in 2002.

In 2012, Massey mine superintendent Gary May pled guilty to charges of criminal conspiracy over deceiving federal safety regulators. When the Mine Safety and Health Administration would come for an inspection, May would warn miners, increase air ventilation, falsify records, and cut corners in order to hide dangerous safety violations.

Though 2014 is barely two months old, the U.S. has seen a raft of coal spills — in West Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia again, and West Virginia again — signaling the problem of dirty coal is not going away.