Alpha Natural Resources is about to have to shell out a record $27.5 million fine, and spend approximately $200 million to address toxic discharges into waterways in five states, including West Virginia. This is not the same company, nor is this settlement for the most recent pollution of the Elk River, just a couple of months ago. No, this settlement is an effort to make amends for water pollution from coal mines and processing plants that go back to 2006.
Reports covering 2006-2013 show evidence Alpha and some of its subsidiaries violated water pollution limits in state-issued permits more than 6,000 times. Heavy metals and other contaminants spewed from more than 800 outfall pipes, though the Environmental Protection Agency says the toxins were harmful to fish and other wildlife, but did not reach drinking water supplies.
There are monitoring records attached to each complaint, meaning that someone has known about these violations going back seven years, yet Alpha is only now paying a price. The company offered an explanation that is little surprise. Gene Kitts, Alpha’s vice president for environmental affairs, claims states do not have the resources to keep up with violations reported – by the companies, of course – nor are states able to follow up on those reports.
“That system has not worked very well,” Kitts said. “The states get the reports, the question is what happens at that point.”
West Virginia will receive $8.9 million from the settlement, which will allegedly be used to tighten enforcement of laws at the state level. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin tempered that idea a bit when he said, “We still appreciate coal mining jobs and the investments here in West Virginia, but they’ve got to be responsible.”
And round and round we go. The companies say the states drop the ball. The states say the companies have got to be more responsible. The federal government is simply happy to take everyone’s money – half of the $27.5 million settlement – while environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club say even record-setting fines are too little, too late. Someone must step up and take responsibility for enforcement of the laws regulating these permits. Surely Tomblin’s recent experience has demonstrated that initiative will not come from the companies.
Tomblin is in a prime position to understand the importance of proactive enforcement and accountability. He and lawmakers had better be certain all of the nearly $9 million West Virginia will receive goes toward helping those at all levels do their jobs in a manner that stops these violations.