Coal Mining: A Threat to Alabama Waters
Shepherd Bend Mine and Birmingham’s Water Supply
SELC continues a years-long effort to reverse the state’s decision to allow the 1,700-acre Shepherd Bend mine to release wastewater just upstream from an intake for the Birmingham Water Works—the source of drinking water for some 200,000 people.
On March 15, 2013, we received the disappointing news that the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals had affirmed the Alabama Department of Environmental Management’s decision to issue a permit to Shepherd Bend under the Clean Water Act. A related case, where the Birmingham Water Works Board has challenged the Alabama Surface Mining Commission’s decision to issue Shepherd Bend a permit, remains before the Alabama Surface Mining Commission’s Division of Hearings and Appeals.
Alabama has a long history of coal mining. The Black Warrior River watershed, for example, is one of the largest coal-producing regions in the South, with more than 90 active coal mines today. But the Alabama Department of Environmental Management has consistently failed to enforce environmental laws to prevent this intensive mining from harming water quality. As a result, many rivers are polluted by runoff carrying acids, heavy metals and sediment.
SELC and our Alabama partners are waging a legal and policy-reform campaign to compel state regulators to comply with the Clean Water Act and other laws to ensure that future coal mining does not harm water quality or threaten drinking water supplies.
The Black Warrior River and its tributaries are a major source of drinking water for Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and other Alabama communities. Shepherd Bend LLC is proposing a 1,773-acre surface coal mine in Walker County, just 800 feet upstream of one of the largest intakes for Birmingham's water system.
Notwithstanding grave concerns cited by the Birmingham Water Works Board and the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, ADEM issued a permit in July 2008, without even telling the water works or the Riverkeeper. The permit allows Shepherd Bend to discharge wastewater from its strip mine at more than two dozen points into Mulberry Fork, a tributary of the Black Warrior River. The wastewater would contain iron, aluminum, manganese, chlorides, sulfates, and other contaminants.
SELC filed suit on behalf of the Riverkeeper in December 2008. Our challenge states that ADEM violated state law by failing to set sufficient limits on specific pollutants, and failing to require the mining company to submit a pollution-prevention plan.
In October 2009, the Alabama Environmental Management Commission agreed that the Riverkeeper is entitled to a hearing on whether water quality will be negatively impacted by the mine, and sent that issue back for further proceedings. However, the commission sided with ADEM on the pollution-abatement plan. The agency maintains that such plans can be submitted to the Alabama Surface Mining Commission after the permit is issued. Although this has become the industry "norm" in Alabama, the surface mining commission has no authority over water quality, and state law requires ADEM to review such a pollution-prevention plan in the course of determining whether a discharge permit is adequate to protect water quality. SELC will continue to pursue this critical issue, in court if necessary.