News | February 18, 2022

Court finds that Drummond Company’s sub-surface discharges into Locust Fork violate federal law

Alabama's iconic Black Warrior River has a history of being threatened by pollution from the state's many coal mines.

In our lawsuit on behalf of Black Warrior Riverkeeper to force Drummond Company to clean up its abandoned coal mine site and end acid mine discharges into the river’s Locust Fork, a judge has determined the discharges are in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

“This is a game changer,” says Senior Attorney Barry Brock of SELC’s Birmingham office. “It’s even more noteworthy because it’s one of the first summary judgment decisions issued by a federal district court applying the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 decision in the precedent-setting Maui case.”

In Maui v. Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, dubbed “the clean water case of the century” by Earthjustice,  the court found that a polluter is liable for groundwater discharges polluting surface waters when discharges are deemed the “functional equivalent” of a direct surface discharge. In other words, the law holds polluters accountable for direct discharges of water pollution into navigable waters, even if the pollution moves through groundwater.


After the Supreme Court released the Maui opinion, the judge in Alabama allowed supplemental briefing on the Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s groundwater claims concerning Drummond’s Maxine Mine site near Praco, Alabama. Those claims state that, under federal law, Drummond is responsible for the ongoing mining waste polluting the Locust Fork and is obligated to stop the illegal discharges.

This latest groundwater ruling also follows the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama’s 2019 decision that Drummond is violating the Clean Water Act by discharging acid mine drainage to surface waters at its Maxine Mine site.

“Both of these rulings are critical in addressing water pollution from similar abandoned and inactive coal mine sites in Alabama by finding that discharges of both surface and groundwater pollution are within the reach of the Clean Water Act,” says Senior Attorney Christina Andreen Tidwell, also in SELC’s Birmingham office.

The tandem rulings come on the heels of decades of work at SELC to confront climate change in Alabama by transitioning away from coal to clean, renewable energy. And decades of work to protect the Black Warrior River from harmful impacts of coal mining and to preserve the natural beauty and abundant wildlife that draws so many paddlers, fishermen, and nature enthusiasts to the Locust Fork.

Another Alabama coke plant is providing nearby communities with relief from pollution by ceasing its operations.