Environmental Protection

Alpha Natural Resources in Record Settlement of CWA Claims

The Bristol, Va.-based coal company will pay $27.5 million in civil penalties, and it and its subsidiaries will spend an estimated $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and to implement upgrades to reduce discharges of pollution from coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Bristol, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. and EPA announced this week that the company has agreed to settle Clean Water Act claims, entering into a consent decree with EPA, the U.S. Department of Justice, and three states. The company will pay an unprecedented $27.5 million in civil penalties, and it and its subsidiaries will spend an estimated $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and to implement upgrades to reduce discharges of pollution from coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The settlement covers approximately 79 active mines and 25 processing plants in those five states. It also resolves violations of a prior 2008 settlement with Massey Energy, which paid a $20 million penalty to the federal government for similar CWA violations, and which Alpha purchased in June 2011 after the explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch South mine.

This time, a government complaint alleged that, between 2006 and 2013, Alpha and its subsidiaries routinely violated limits in 336 of its state-issued CWA permits, resulting in the discharge of excess amounts of pollutants into hundreds of rivers and streams. EPA reported that it documented at least 6,289 violations of permit limits for pollutants that include iron, pH, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese, selenium, and salinity at 794 discharge points. The company, however, pointed out there were no releases of any chemical or impact to public drinking water supplies, and that the 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, and permits sometimes are exceeded when rainwater or groundwater transport the elements into an operation's water discharge during mining operations, according to Alpha Senior Vice President of Environmental Affairs Gene Kitts. "This consent decree provides a framework for our efforts to become fully compliant with our environmental permits, specifically under the Clean Water Act," he said in a posted 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."

Kitts said many of the consent decree measures were put in place before the agreement was reached, including an expanded audit program and an enhanced environmental database to track violations and compliance efforts at each discharge point. "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," he said. "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. The public expects that regulators ensure that water quality is protected and that companies comply with their permits. 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."

"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 Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are involved in decree, which 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 that court before it becomes effective.

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