Alpha settles stream quality issues with environmental groups

Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR) said Dec. 15 that a settlement by two affiliated operations (Alex Energy and Elk Run Coal) and three environmental organizations charts a path forward to improve certain stream conditions in the areas near these southern West Virginia operations.

The deal does not include a monetary civil penalty, Alpha noted. The role conductivity, a key measurement tool of ostensible stream degradation, plays in stream quality is still an evolving area of research, Alpha said. The decision to settle this litigation is not an endorsement of any research or the currently available methods for measuring stream health. 

This settlement’s compliance deadline of Aug. 1, 2019, will allow for the continued study of this issue, and also provides reasonable time and flexibility for the evaluation and development of the most appropriate technologies, water management methods and other approaches to improve stream conditions in an environmentally and economically responsible manner, Alpha pointed out. 

Alpha Natural Resources is one of the largest and most regionally diversified coal suppliers in the United States. With affiliate mining operations in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, Alpha supplies metallurgical coal to the steel industry and thermal coal to generate power to customers on five continents. Alex Energy and Elk Run Coal are operations it picked up in a 2011 buy of Massey Energy.

The Sierra Club said in its own Dec. 15 statement that the agreement includes enforceable conditions and timelines that the groups say will eventually require the company to install state of the art technology to treat harmful conductivity pollution. The mines at issue are operated by Alpha subsidiaries Elk Run Coal in Boone County and Alex Energy in Nicholas County, W.Va.

The groups involved – including Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Sierra Club – previously secured a decision from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia finding the company liable for violations of the Clean Water Act. Although the Dec. 15 settlement agreement allows the company to attempt to meet Clean Water Act protections by improving the health of the harmed streams, it also includes firm trigger mechanisms that will require the installation and operation of pollution treatment technology to reduce conductivity pollution down to the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined is safe for aquatic life. The settlement also requires Alpha to retire the only remaining dragline in Central Appalachia not already subject to a retirement agreement. Draglines are giant cranes with a dangling bucket that strip away soil and rocks from over coal seams.

Conductivity is a measure of certain pollutants in water, based on the water’s ability to hold an electrical charge. The EPA has conducted scientific studies that found “high levels of conductivity, dissolved solids, and sulfates are a primary cause of water quality impairments” downstream from valley fills and other mining operations.

“For the company to escape treating its conductivity pollution, it would have to succeed in restoring streams despite the presence of conductivity at levels that multiple peer reviewed studies have demonstrated are devastating to aquatic ecosystems,” said Cindy Rank of West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. “We are confident that this agreement will ultimately force the company to treat its conductivity pollution with the best available technology.”

This settlement follows closely on the heels of a recent announcement by these citizen groups that they are preparing a new lawsuit against Patriot Coal subsidiary Hobet Mining regarding conductivity pollution into the Mud River watershed from that company’s sprawling Hobet 21 mine complex in southern West Virginia.

The Dec. 15 settlement will be lodged with the federal court for 45 days pending review by the U.S. Department of Justice.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.