The Associated Press is out this afternoon with this news:
Alpha Natural Resources, one of the nation’s largest coal producers, will pay a $27.5 million fine and spend $200 million to reduce illegal toxic discharges into hundreds of waterways across five Appalachian states … The agreement includes the largest fine ever for violations of water pollution permits.
The government says that between 2006 and 2013, Alpha Natural Resources Inc. and dozens of subsidiaries violated water pollution limits in state-issued permits more than 6,000 times. They discharged heavy metals and other contaminants harmful to fish and other wildlife from nearly 800 outfall pipes directly into rivers, streams and tributaries, according to the government.
Monitoring records attached to the complaint show that in some cases, the releases exceeded permit limits by 35 times.
Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (Alpha), one of the nation’s largest coal companies, Alpha Appalachian Holdings (formerly Massey Energy), and 66 subsidiaries have agreed to spend an estimated $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and to implement comprehensive, system-wide upgrades to reduce discharges of pollution from coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, the Department of Justice and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced today. Overall, the settlement covers approximately 79 active mines and 25 processing plants in these five states.
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.
EPA’s press release included these quotes from government officials:
“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 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.”
This consent decree provides a framework for our efforts to become fully compliant with our environmental permits, specifically under the Clean Water Act. 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.
It’s worth noting that the federal government entered into a massive, $20 million water pollution settlement with Massey Energy back in 2008 (before Alpha’s June 2011 buyout of Massey), and EPA officials were talking big at the time about how the deal was going to reform the company’s environmental practices. As we reported then:
Federal environmental regulators believe a record $20 million fine, new pollution monitoring requirements and the threat of automatic penalties for additional violations will force Massey Energy Co. to change the way it does business.
The 54-page deal would also force Massey to set up extensive new pollution databases and conduct intensive compliance audits, as well as quickly fix problems and report company-wide progress to federal regulators.
“There is a lot of transparency now as this goes forward,” said Robert Klepp, an attorney with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance.
Massey must implement a series of detailed new pollution control plans, and pay an escalating scale of fines – starting at a minimum of $1,000 for the first citation – for future water permit violations, under the settlement.
Company officials must contract for a variety of independent environmental audits, start a new program to inspect and maintain slurry pipelines, and hire a special contractor to implement many of the settlement’s requirements.
Massey must also design a series of new databases and warning systems to track violations, report those violations to management, and correct the underlying problems. Periodic reports of these steps must be filed with federal regulators.
“We hope we have them tied to a set of requirements whereby they are going to step forward and do the right thing,” Klepp said. “We expect that their level of violations is going to go significantly down.”
Of course, the government seems to find it difficult to really end coal industry environmental and safety violations, and citizen groups went to court after that Massey deal, arguing that the company’s behavior had actually gotten worse.
Just last week, Alpha’s most recent annual filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission included a long list of pending water pollution suits brought by citizen groups against Alpha. West Virginia lawmakers and the Tomblin administration have tried to help Alpha out of such suits, but a federal judge hasn’t gone along with them. In its Feb. 28 SEC filing, though, Alpha noted:
The Company is currently in discussions with the EPA about addressing certain of these and other matters.
In a statement today, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups didn’t sound especially impressed with this Alpha deal. Dianne Bady of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, for example, said:
This solution didn’t work seven years ago, when EPA and the Department of Justice took action to stop Massey Energy’s culture of contaminating streams. Now, under Alpha, these problems continue and the government’s solution is the same: fines and a plan to make individual mines better – which didn’t stop the problems last time. Considering that Alpha is a four billion dollar company, this fine is just another acceptable cost of doing business. It is unacceptable that regulatory agencies allow companies like Alpha to expand their mountaintop removal operations without forcing an end to illegal pollution at their existing mines. These fines are no substitute for allowing companies to continue to illegally pollute.