Coal Mining: A Threat to Alabama Waters

Black Warrior River: SELC filed suit in Dec. 2008 stating that ADEM violated state law by failing to set sufficient limits on specific pollutants.


Photo © Beth Young

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Groups Challenge Flawed Coal Mine Permitting along Black Warrior River More »

The continued use of a controversial permit in the Black Warrior River watershed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fails to comply with federal requirements for surface mining, according to a lawsuit filed today by the Southern Environmental Law Center and Public Justice on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Defenders of Wildlife. The lawsuit challenges the Corps’ use of a general permit known as Nationwide Permit 21 in Alabama, which has already authorized the fill and burial of hundreds of miles of streams and wetlands to accommodate surface mining, without the detailed study and analysis of cumulative impacts required by the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Read more in the press release.

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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, 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 watershed, 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 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. SELC asks the Corps to revise the permitting process to adequately consider the site-specific and cumulative environmental impacts of new stream-filling by coal mining.

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