The Times West Virginian

Opinion

March 7, 2014

Coal industry can’t afford to give this administration and EPA more ammunition

Coal already has a bad name in Washington, D.C.

The whole industry got another black eye this week when Alpha Natural Resources Inc., one of the country’s largest coal producers, agreed to pay a $27.5 million fine and invest $200 million to reduce illegal water pollution in five states, including West Virginia.

This is the largest fine ever imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency for violation of water pollution permits and was filed Wednesday in federal court. The discharges occurred at mines and coal plants in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Virginia.

The EPA contends that between 2006 and last year, the company and its subsidiaries violated permits more than 6,000 times and in some cases discharged heavy metals and other harmful chemicals directly into rivers, streams and tributaries. According to The Associated Press, which received a copy of the settlement before it was filed earlier this week, in some cases, the level of chemicals released into the state’s waterways were 35 times greater than what the company was permitted to do.

According to the settlement, Alpha will invest what they say will be about $200 million into building better wastewater treatment systems at more than 100 facilities in the five affected states. Alpha’s vice president for environmental affairs, Gene Kitts, told the AP that the Virginia-based company is in compliance with the Clean Water Act 99.8 percent of the time.

We’re just not sure that’s good enough. Considering the volume of Alpha’s production of coal, that “less than 1 percent” can not only have a dramatic impact on the environment, but on the reputation of the coal industry.

What’s worse is that the company, in some cases, reported the violations to the states where they occurred and the states just didn’t have the resources to follow up.

With half of the fine going to the federal government and half of the fine going to West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, there will be some resources to invest in better regulation of the permits on a statewide level.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has already promised that West Virginia’s share, $8.9 million, will be spent on enforcement of pollution laws.

“We still appreciate coal mining jobs and the investments here in West Virginia, but they’ve got to be responsible,” Tomblin said.

We agree. In fact, we couldn’t agree more.

The coal industry is already fighting for its life under an administration set to stop the coal-fired generation of electricity by setting unattainable air-quality standards. This settlement, on the heels of another coal-related spill in the Elk River, only gives the administration and its EPA more ammunition.

Companies need to take every precaution to avoid harming the environment around them, violating laws and issued permits and to promote and develop greener initiatives in the communities where they are located. And the state absolutely must do a better job at enforcing the laws and dealing with those companies that violate them.

“Our goal is to do even better, and the (settlement) provides an opportunity to proactively focus on improving the less than 1 percent of the time that permits are exceeded,” Alpha’s Kitts told The AP this week.

We certainly hope so. And if that’s the case, we hope other coal companies, large and small, will use the same proactive measures moving forward.

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