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Drummond Co. Inc. ordered to clean mine site polluting Black Warrior River - Energy And Water Development Corp

Drummond Co. Inc. ordered to clean mine site polluting Black Warrior River


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In what’s being touted as a major victory for clean water advocates, a Birmingham-based coal company has agreed to meet environmentalists’ demands and clean up an abandoned mine site on the Locust Fork tributary of the Black Warrior River.

A consent decree signed last week by Drummond Co. Inc., a coal mining and processing company that dates back to 1935, and the Black Warrior Riverkeeper in U.S. District Court will require the company to remediate the long-shuttered Maxine Mine site near the Jefferson County town of Praco. The consent decree calls for the elimination of the discharges of acid, sediment and toxic, heavy metals, among other pollutants, that have been flowing into the Locust Fork for decades.

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“The rulings in this case and the consent decree itself are critical to protecting the Black Warrior River from harmful legacy impacts of coal mining, and set a precedent for polluters throughout the state that these type discharges violate federal law,” said Barry Brock, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, which represented the Black Warrior Riverkeeper in this case, in a news release. “Site owners must take accountability for harming communities’ clean water.”

Under the terms of the consent decree, Drummond must remediate the site to eliminate discharges of acidic drainage, including sediment, metals such as iron, manganese and aluminum and other pollutants.

The consent decree requires Drummond Co. to pay $2.65 million in court costs, $1 million for a supplemental environmental project to mitigate the effects of its past pollution in the Locust Fork watershed and set aside additional funds to maintain and operate treatment systems for at least 30 years.

Drummond Co. also is required to comply with new pollution limits within five years and, according to the terms of the consent decree, should it fail to meet this compliance deadline of Oct. 15, 2027, the company may be subject to penalties of $1,750 per day.

Efforts by The Tuscaloosa News to reach a Drummond Co. representative or attorneys from the Starnes Davis Florie law firm of Birmingham, which represented the coal company, were not successful.

Clean water victory

The Southern Environmental Law Center, headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia, was joined by Public Justice, a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization based in Oakland, California, in representing the Black Warrior Riverkeeper organization and Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke.

“This Clean Water Act victory for the Locust Fork is pivotal for everyone who loves to swim, fish, paddle and boat on the river,” Brooke said. “Maxine Mine’s acid mine drainage has polluted the Locust Fork for decades, and it’s time the site is cleaned up to protect the health of the river and the people and wildlife who depend on it.”

Brooke teamed up with the Southern Environmental Law Center and Public Justice to address the pollutants washing out of the Maxine Mine in 2016.

That’s when the first lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama to address the ongoing pollution and storage of coal mine waste at the mine on the Locust Fork, which is about 60 miles upstream from Tuscaloosa.

Then, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper was seeking legal action to compel Drummond to remove the waste left behind in the Maxine Mine that was closed in the 1980s and remediate and restore the nearby contaminated streams, as well as any other necessary measures, to stop the illegal discharges at the site.

When mining operations at the Maxine Mine ceased, what the Riverkeeper described as “an enormous pile of mining waste” was left at the site of abandoned underground coal mine  on the banks of the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River near Praco.

This pile of waste, as well as sediment basins full of coal mining waste and contaminated runoff, led to mining waste and acid mine drainage illegally discharging from the site into the Locust Fork and tributaries through surface water runoff and seeps for years.

The mine’s waste also completely filled in what once was a flowing tributary of the Locust Fork, the environmental group claimed.

Three years later, in May 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Abdul K. Kallon for the Northern District of Alabama agreed with these claims and granted the Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s motion for summary judgment and ruled that Drummond Co. was violating the Clean Water Act by continuously discharging acid mine drainage into the Black Warrior River’s Locust Fork from the Maxine Mine site.

This ruling held Drummond liable for discharges of contaminants contained in surface water being carried from the waste pile and into the river.

Another blow was dealt to Drummond Co. in January, when the U.S. District Court determined these discharges also were in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, one of the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

This ruling cited a 2020 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that said a polluter is liable for the pollution of surface waters by groundwater discharges when those discharges are deemed the “functional equivalent” of a direct surface discharge.

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In essence, this law holds polluters accountable for direct discharges of water pollution into navigable waters, even if the pollution moves through groundwater.

Now, the company has agreed – and the court required – to mitigate these pollution issues once and for all.

“The settlement is one large step in fighting the long-lasting legacy of coal mining,” said Jim Hecker, director of Public Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Project, in a news release announcing the agreement. “Companies like Drummond must take responsibility for cleaning up acid mine drainage and runoff that continue to threaten streams and groundwater in the watershed.”

Reach Jason Morton at jason.morton@tuscaloosanews.com.



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