Coal Mining: A Threat to Alabama Waters

Black Warrior River: 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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For over two years, SELC and our partners have been working to get rid of a harmful, controversial permit that allows for unlimited filling of streams and wetlands with mining material in the Black Warrior River basin, a major source of drinking water for Birmingham, Tuscaloosa, and other Alabama communities.

A federal court ruled in our favor this week by forcing the Corps to go back and reassess whether the impacts from surface mining activities at the 41 permitted sites are really minimal based on an admission by the Corps – on the eve of oral argument – that it dramatically underestimated impacts of this permit.

The use of this general approval, known as Nationwide Permit 21, has been suspended in other Appalachian states because of its detrimental impacts on water quality. One major concern with Nationwide Permit 21 is that it does not require individual review of each mining site, a practice that is a standard for most surface mining activities.

Unfortunately, the ruling stopped short of requiring that the 41 permits be vacated until the Corps finishes its recalculation, meaning unlimited stream filling can continue during that time.   

Read our full press release on the ruling.

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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 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.

Nationwide Permit 21

In November 2013, SELC filed a lawsuit on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Defenders of Wildlife against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the continued use of Nationwide Permit 21 to authorize surface mining in Alabama. Since May 2012, the permit has allowed the fill and burial of over 145,000 linear feet of streams (approximately 27 miles) 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 mounting concern over effects on aquatic resources, the Corps substantially revised the permit when reissuing it in 2012 and 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.

Activities such as stream-filling in connection with coal mining typically require individual permits under the Clean Water Act that can only be issued after careful review and public comment, a process the Corps has avoided under Nationwide Permit 21.

In March 2015, SELC received a favorable ruling from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals finding that the Corps had erroneously concluded that Nationwide Permit 21 had minimal cumulative environmental impacts. The 11th Circuit required the Corps to reconsider this finding within the next year. Although the court declined to put the 41 permits issued in Alabama pursuant to Nationwide Permit 21 on hold, the Corps must assess the impacts of this permit and rectify its error.

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