The U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced the largest civil penalty in history under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act (CWA). The penalty was issued to one of the country’s largest coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (Alpha) and its subsidiaries. The $27.5 million fine resulted from thousands of permit violations related to coal mines and processing plants located in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.
The settlement agreement also requires the companies to spend an additional $200 million on new wastewater treatment facilities and to make system wide upgrades to reduce pollution from coal mines. EPA estimates that millions of pounds of pollutants will be prevented from entering waterways as a result.
In addition to Alpha, the penalties apply to Alpha Appalachian Holdings (formerly Massey Energy) and 66 subsidiaries. Facilities affected include approximately 79 active mines and 25 processing plants in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
In the event of future violations, the companies will be required to pay specific additional penalties, which could be increased or even doubled for continuing violations.
The coal industry has been in the news a lot lately, with its supporters referring to a “war on coal” in the context of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal fired power plants. Detractors point to a spill earlier this year of a chemical that fouled the drinking water of residents of West Virginia and more recent events such as the coal fly ash spills from holding ponds operated by Duke Energy in North Carolina.
Whether the timing of today’s announcement is related to those events in some way or not is unknown, however, the actions do demonstrate that the Justice Department and EPA take seriously violations of the nation’s environmental laws.
“The unprecedented size of the civil penalty in this settlement sends a strong deterrent message to others in this industry that such egregious violations of the nation’s Clean Water Act will not be tolerated,” said Robert G. Dreher, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division in the EPA press release. “Today’s agreement is good news for communities across Appalachia, who have too often been vulnerable to polluters who disregard the law. It holds Alpha accountable and will bring increased compliance and transparency among Alpha and its many subsidiaries.”
“This settlement is the result of state and federal agencies working together to protect local communities from pollution by enforcing the law,” added Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in the same press release. “By requiring reforms and a robust compliance program, we are helping to ensure coal mining in Appalachia follows environmental laws that protect public health.”
The penalties resulted from incidents as far back as 2006 and also resolve violations of a prior 2008 settlement and $20 million penalty with Massey Energy, which was purchased by Alpha in 2011. During this time frame, the government alleged that Alpha and its subsidiaries routinely violated limits in 336 of its state-issued CWA permits, amounting to at least 6,289 violations of permit limits for discharges at 794 different discharge points known as outfalls. These illegal discharges, some at more than twice the permitted limit, polluted hundreds of rivers and streams and included discharges that were done without any permit at all.
Once paid, the penalties will be shared with the affected states according to the number of violations in each state. The federal government will receive half of the penalty, with the remainder distributed as follows: West Virginia ($8,937,500), Pennsylvania ($4,125,000), and Kentucky ($687,500).