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.


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SELC, partners challenge coal mine’s permit to fill streams feed Alabama river More »

Conservation groups are challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ approval of another permit authorizing coal mining material to be dumped into streams that feed into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River in Alabama’s Jefferson County. The groups charge that the federal agency failed to account for the permit’s adverse effects on a watershed that has been continuously degraded by decades of ongoing mining activities. 

SELC filed the challenge on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Defenders of Wildlife. The challenge argues that allowing over 2 miles of stream filling at the site, known as Black Warrior Minerals Mine #2, is yet another example where the agency has rubberstamped approvals without properly analyzing the site-specific and broader impacts of the permit. These impacts include compromised water quality, habitat degradation, and threats to Alabama’s rare aquatic wildlife.

Black Warrior Minerals Mine #2 covers approximately 1,300 acres. With over 100 permitted coal mines already in the Black Warrior River watershed, impacts from coal mining are some of the biggest threats to water quality in the region.

Polluted water discharged from this mine will go into waters that feed the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. The Locust Fork is already listed as impaired by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and is home to some of Alabama’s rarest species and their federally-protected critical habitat. The Locust Fork is also a popular destination for fishing and other forms of outdoor recreation, a multi-billion dollar industry for Alabama. 

Mine discharges will also flow into Turkey Creek, known habitat for listed species such as the flattened musk turtle and various endangered fish. Yet the Corps of Engineers and Fish and Wildlife Service routinely fail to consider the impacts of mines like this, finding here that the mine would have no effect on these imperiled aquatic species.

“The permitting process for coal mines such as this not only fails to comply with federal laws, it wreaks havoc on Alabama’s beautiful waterways, the quality of drinking water, and the fish and wildlife that depend on these resources,” said SELC Senior Attorney Catherine Wannamaker. “When miles of streams and wetlands are permanently filled in, as they will be at this site, they can no longer function to filter out pollution such as sediment and heavy metals. The lax permitting process for these mines also threatens the great biodiversity that makes Alabama’s rivers so unique.” 

The Southern Environmental Law Center, Black Warrior Riverkeeper and Defenders of Wildlife challenged a similar mining permit on the Locust Fork in late 2015, and the Corps of Engineers suspended that permit in response to the lawsuit. Unfortunately, the Corps and Fish and Wildlife Service have approved the Black Warrior Minerals Mine #2 without considering any of the issues raised in the earlier case.

EPA has commented that the discharge limitations and best management practices typically required at coal mining sites on the Locust Fork are ineffective at maintaining water quality and are allowing the continued degradation of the river. However, the Corps continues to issue these permits without adequate protections or appropriate mitigation measures. 

For a link to the complaint, click here

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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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