With energy needs in the United States growing almost daily, but few new sources of energy being found, the easiest solution is fairly straightforward: ramp up production of the sources we have. The United States has coal in abundance; in fact, we’re a net exporter of coal. Coal production in the United States has almost doubled since the 1970s, and that includes in Alabama, one of 26 coal-producing states and one of the South’s biggest producers.
Mining for coal is dirty business, not just for the people who have to do it, but for the land as well, according to many researchers and environmentalists. Strip mining creates wastewater, a cocktail of acid, heavy metal and other dangerous sediments, in volume. There are no real cost-effective methods of disposing of this wastewater, so mines dump it into rivers. According to environmental advocacy groups like the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, discharge of wastewater is ostensibly regulated by law so as to minimize damage to water resources, but coal mines can dump iron, aluminum, chlorides and sulfides into is the same water we drink.
This isn’t a hypothetical situation. Two coal mines, Shepherd’s Bend mine on the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River and Rosa mine on Locust Fork, a tributary of the Black Warrior River, were recently proposed. Both involve wastewater outfalls directly into the river and, in Shepherd’s Bend’s case, just upstream of municipal water intake facilities. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) approved both permits, and Rosa mine began operation in 2010. This happened despite concerns expressed by environmental groups, including the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, and the Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB), which raised concerns about Shepherd’s Bend. So what can the opponents of the mines do?
Earlier last year, the Southern Environmental Law Center opened an office in Birmingham. The SELC is a non-profit organization that works on multiple levels, including in the courts, to support responsible environmental policy in the southeast United States. The SELC, along with other environmental advocacy groups in the area, has chosen to take on the Shepherd’s Bend and Rosa mine cases, challenging the legality and responsibility of both permits in court.
Shepherd’s Bend would be a 1,773-acre surface mine situated on a meander of the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. According to Drummond Coal, the owners of Shepherd Bend, LLC, which has the permit to operate the mine, the coal in the area is a highly valuable metallurgic coal, used in coking and steel production. The mine would require 29 outfalls for its wastewater, some of which would be only 800 feet upstream from a large intake facility for Birmingham’s water works. According to environmentalists, not only did ADEM issue the permit in July 2008 with this knowledge in hand, but they did so without informing the BWWB or the Riverkeeper. In December 2008, the SELC filed suit against ADEM on behalf of the Riverkeeper, citing the fact that ADEM issued the permit without setting sufficient limits on pollutants or requiring a pollution-prevention plan.
The problems with Rosa mine are very similar to those with Shepherd’s Bend, but, according to SELC, even worse. It is a 3,255-acre mine–nearly twice the size of Shepherd’s Bend–on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, a fork that ADEM itself says is already one of the most polluted streams in Alabama. The mine has 62 outfalls of wastewater into this tributary of the Black Warrior River. Much like Shepherd’s Bend, “Rosa Coal is a very high-quality metallurgical coal which . . . supplies the carbon used in the making of steel from iron ore.” According to the web site for Novadx, the parent company of MCoal, the company operating the mine, “MCoal received all necessary permits to begin mining at the Rosa Coal Mine.” True enough, ADEM once again issued a permit and, according to the SELC, despite Rose mine being nearly twice the size of Shepherd’s Bend and being located on an already polluted river, the permit sets almost identical limits for pollution as Shepherd’s Bend. In addition, the permit sets no limits for pollutants when it rains, the time when watersheds are most vulnerable to contaminants in storm water. For these reasons, the SELC filed suit against ADEM on behalf of the Riverkeeper and the Friends of the Locust Fork River.
The main battle being fought in both of these cases is not against the coal companies themselves, but against ADEM and the Alabama Surface Mining Commissions for what the SELC considers irresponsible behavior. The true issue, according to the SELC, is not the mining itself, but the fact that ADEM failed to place strong enough restrictions on pollutants.
According to Keith Johnson, the managing attorney at the SELC’s Birmingham office, “A judge approved the permit for Rosa mine, so we appealed it. It’s currently in appeals at the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals and we’re hoping to have that original decision overturned.” Rosa mine may very well come to fruition, against the advice of environmental advocacy groups and ADEM’s own river registry. But groups say that what ADEM did was not a true approval of Rosa mine. Instead, they sent the proposal to the Alabama Surface Mining Commission, which not only does not handle environmental standards but is not responsible for issuing the kind of permit that was applied for.
Shepherd’s Bend is earlier along in the process and, Johnson says, “We’re very optimistic about getting a favorable decision in that case. There was a hearing this past February and the case is before the hearing officer who will make a written recommendation to ADEM. A decision should come out in several months.”
Their work with the coal mines represents just a small part of the SELC’s work in Alabama. Since opening the Birmingham office, the group has begun work on air quality improvement, issuing a comprehensive report on Birmingham’s air quality, reasons behind the smog and suggestions on how to solve the problem; water conservations which includes protecting vulnerable areas such as the Black Warrior River from environmental hazards; and transportation reform, including attempts to curb interstate sprawl, as seen in projects like the Northern Beltline.
Said Johnson, “We’re really looking forward to working in the future on environmental issues in the area. There’s a lot to be done and the SELC is looking forward to taking the lead on some of these key issues.” According to the SELC, the Southeast will continue to face pressures in the future from population growth and other development projects. Coal production is the name of the game, and it will likely continue to grow in the future. The SELC should have plenty of work to keep it busy here.
Andy McWhorter is a Birmingham Weekly editorial assistant. He also writes our, “Hot seat/limelight” feature. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.