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

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Today President Donald Trump signed into law a repeal of the Stream Protection Rule, dismantling key protections that help keep our drinking water safe from coal pollution. The President’s signature on this bill marks the first anti-environmental rollback of many promised from this new administration.

“In their first move to dismantle basic protections of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we depend on, anti-environment leaders in Congress and the Administration chose to put coal-mining profits over the health and safety of Appalachian communities,” said SELC Senior Attorney Deborah Murray. “Limiting the toxic waste coal companies can dump in our rivers and streams is not a burdensome government regulation; it is common sense and, quite frankly, the job of our federal government. We cannot continue to allow toxic mining pollution in our sources of drinking water.”

Often, mining companies have sent toxin-laden waste tumbling from mountaintops into valleys and streams, harming or destroying these crucial waterways. The Stream Protection Rule limited the amount of mining waste that could be deposited into streams and required mining companies to monitor the water for coal contaminants and report the findings to the public.

Finalized in December after years of input from a wide range of stakeholders, the rule provided clarity and peace of mind to those still living in coal communities and protected 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forest for the next 20 years, according to the Department of the Interior.

Provisions in the rule included requiring companies to avoid mining practices that would permanently pollute streams or drinking water sources and restoring streams and mined areas to pre-mining uses.

But now the protections have been stripped from these communities through use of the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rule. The Congressional Review Act process prohibits any similar rules from taking shape in the future. That means these protections for important sources of drinking water in mining communities could go away—for good.

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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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