Coal Mining: A Threat to Alabama Waters

ADEM has consistently violated state law in failing to set sufficient limits on specific pollutants in Alabama’s waters.


Photo © Beth Young

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 100 permitted coal mines. But the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) 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 and mining companies 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.

Nationwide Permit 21

Since November 2013, SELC and partners Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Defenders of Wildlife have been working to stop the use of a lax U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, Nationwide Permit 21, in the Black Warrior River basin, a major source of drinking water for Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and other Alabama communities.

After suspending the use of this permit in the Appalachian region in 2010 because of harmful impacts to water quality, the Corps substantially revised the permit when reissuing it in 2012 to allow only 300 linear feet or a ½ acre of stream to be filled in connection with mining. But the Corps included an arbitrary “grandfather” provision, allowing the unlimited fill of streams and wetlands authorized by the previous version of the permit to continue at 41 mines in Alabama until 2017.

Coal mining activities that result in stream filling typically require individual permits that can only be issued after careful review and public comment, a process the Corps has avoided under Nationwide Permit 21.

In March 2015, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Corps had erroneously concluded that Nationwide Permit 21 had minimal cumulative environmental impacts and required the agency to complete a reanalysis of the permit’s impacts in Alabama. 

Unfortunately, this reanalysis resulted in the Corps of Engineers again determining that it could allow unfettered stream filling in Alabama. SELC is now back before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, again asking the court to strike down this unlawful practice, which could allow the filling of 27 miles of stream in Alabama alone.

Black Creek Mine

On behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Defenders of Wildlife, SELC is also challenging the Corps’ approval of a stream filling permit for Black Creek Mine, a new 287-acre surface coal mine operated by Canadian company Global Met Coal Corporation on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. 

In response to our claims around the permit’s adverse impacts on water quality and rare aquatic wildlife, the Corps has suspended the permit in order to reconsider these issues and to consult with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as required by the Endangered Species Act.

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