The United States’ second-largest coal producer is on track to settle a case with the federal government that will see it pay $27.5 million in fines and spend $200 million cleaning up illegal toxic discharges in five states.
As part of the proposed settlement, Alpha Natural Resources and its 66 subsidiaries will set up and manage wastewater treatment systems in order reduce discharges from 79 coal mines and 25 coal-processing plants into water systems in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
According to the Associated Press, the government stated that illegal discharges of pollutants such as heavy metals (iron, aluminum, and others) were made directly into numerous rivers and streams. The Environmental Protection Agency said drinking water supplies were never affected, but that the discharges were harmful to fish and other wildlife.
The company reportedly violated state-issued pollution permits more than 6,000 times between 2006 and 2013. In some cases, it discharged up to 35 times the amount of pollutants sanctioned by permits.
The company’s senior vice president of environmental affairs, Gene Kitts, said that while the settlement will help Alpha Natural Resources prevent future incidents, it had a 99.8 percent permit compliance rate throughout 2013.
"That's a strong record of compliance," Kitts she told the AP. "But our goal is to do even better, and the consent decree provides an opportunity to proactively focus on improving the less than 1 percent of the time that permits are exceeded."
In a statement to Bloomberg News, the Justice Department’s Robert G. Dreher said the settlement will demonstrate the government’s willingness to take action against companies violating safety standards.
“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,” he said.
The EPA’s Cynthia Giles, meanwhile, noted the $27.5 million fine is the largest ever of its kind.
"This is the largest one, period," she said to the AP. "It's the biggest case for permit violations for numbers of violations and size of the penalty, which reflects the seriousness of violations."
Despite the severity of the fine, some environmental advocates remain unsatisfied with the process governing polluters. Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club told the AP that cash fines don’t really amount to much when the environment has already been affected.
The settlement also comes soon after one of the affected states had to deal with the fallout of another chemical spill. In January, a chemical mixture used to wash coal began leaking into the state’s Elk River, contaminating the water supply for roughly 300,000 people.
Meanwhile, late February saw as much as 35 million gallons of coal ash and arsenic-contaminated water flow spill into North Carolina’s Dan River. Officials said drinking water was not contaminated, but cautioned residents against coming in contact with the river and eating any fish from it.