A federal court in West Virginia has ordered coal company Alpha Natural Resources Inc. (ANR) and several of its subsidiaries to pay a $27.5 million fine and spend $200 million to reduce toxic discharges into hundreds of waterways across Appalachia. This settlement is the largest ever paid by an energy company for violating water pollution permits.
Between 2006 and 2013, ANR Inc. discharged toxic chemicals into waterways in the states of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia from mines and coal processing plants. The result was 6000 violations of state-issued water pollution limit permits as nearly 800 outfall pipes dumped heavy metal and other toxic contaminants into rivers, streams, and tributaries.
“This is the largest one, period,” said Cynthia Giles, head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement office, of the settlement. “It’s the biggest case for permit violations for numbers of violations and size of the penalty, which reflects the seriousness of violations.”
There are 79 active coal mines and 25 coal-processing plants in the states named in the settlement. The ordered $200 million must be used to construct wastewater treatment systems and other means of reducing the amount of toxic wastewater into the affected waterways.
There have been longstanding occurrences of water pollution as a result of coal mining in Appalachia, especially in West Virginia. The most recent and largest occurrence being the January chemical spill where the water supply for 300,000 people was shut off after a coal cleaning chemical spilled into the Elk River near Charleston, WV.
Well-established for about 100 years now, the coal industry in West Virginia has long been contaminating various water supplies in the state. Vivian Stockman, spokeswoman for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, indicated a common, pollution practice for the coal industry. Stockman said that companies have long dumped contaminated wastewater directly into the ground. From there, the chemicals get into the water table and contaminate drinking water supplies.
“All this waste is going underground for years, and then one day people start noticing their well water turning sometimes orange, sometimes black,” said Stockman.
The accumulated pollution in West Virginia has caused serious health problems among those within a close proximity of the pollution. Stockman said that the contamination caused people to develop rare cancers, small children formed kidney stones, and caused premature deaths.
“There are federal environmental laws in place to protect the public and environment,” said Emme Paulos, BP litigation attorney with Levin, Papantonio. “Dumping chemicals into various waterways is a serious offense and requires a thorough investigation to determine the all facts of the incident.”