Alpha Natural Resources to spend more than $200 million as part - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Alpha Natural Resources to spend more than $200 million as part of consent decree

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Alpha Natural Resources will have to spend as much as $200 million on new equipment and pay a $27 million fine to settle permit violations in five states, including West Virginia, under a consent decree filed recently in federal court in Charleston.

The consent decree, reached with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department, will settle complaints that Alpha affiliates in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia exceeded water discharge permit limits.

Alpha said the complaint did not suggest the excesses posed a risk to public health.

It calls for Alpha, Alpha Appalachian Holdings (formerly Massey Energy) and 66 subsidiaries to spend an estimated $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and implement comprehensive, system-wide upgrades to reduce discharges from their mines in Appalachia.

The upgrades will include an integrated environmental management system, an expanded auditing/reporting protocol and installation of selenium and osmotic pressure treatment facilities at specific locations.

"This consent decree provides a framework for our efforts to become fully compliant with our environmental permits, specifically under the Clean Water Act," Alpha Senior Vice President of Environmental Affairs Gene Kitts said in a statement announcing the agreement. "Our combined total water quality compliance rate for 2013 was 99.8 percent. That's a strong record of compliance, particularly considering it's based on more than 665,000 chances to miss a daily or monthly average limit. But our goal is to do even better, and the consent decree provides an opportunity to proactively focus on improving on the less than 1 percent of the time that permit limits were exceeded."

EPA expects the upgrades and advanced treatment required by the settlement will reduce discharges of total dissolved solids by more than 36 million pounds per year and will cut metals and other pollutants by about 9 million pounds yearly.

"This settlement is the result of state and federal agencies working together to protect local communities from pollution by enforcing the law," said Cynthia Giles, Assistant Administrator of EPA's Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. "By requiring reforms and a robust compliance program, we are helping to ensure coal mining in Appalachia follows environmental laws that protect public health."

The government also says the $27.5 million fine Alpha will pay for "thousands of permit violations" is the largest in the history under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act.

"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," said Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "(This) agreement is good news for communities across Appalachia who have too often been vulnerable to polluters who disregard the law. It holds Alpha accountable and will bring increased compliance and transparency among Alpha and its many subsidiaries."

USEPA said the agreement requires Alpha and all of its Appalachian operations to build and operate treatment systems to eliminate selenium and salinity permit violations and implement comprehensive system-wide improvements to ensure future compliance, including developing and implementing an environmental management system and periodic internal and third-party environmental compliance audits.

The companies also must maintain a database to track violations and compliance efforts at each outfall, significantly improve the timeliness of responding to violations and consult with third-party experts to solve problem discharges.

The government had charged Alpha and its subsidiaries with routinely violating limits stipulated in 336 of its state-issued Clean Water Act permits between 2006 an 2013, polluting rivers and streams in the five states. The government said other pollutants were discharged without permits.

In total, USEPA said it documented at least 6,289 violations for pollutants that included iron, aluminum, manganese, selenium, salinity, and total suspended solids.

The agreement also resolves violations covered in a 2008 settlement with Massey Energy, which paid a $20 million fine for permit violations plus $1 million in stipulated penalties over the course of the next two years.

Alpha purchased Massey Energy in 2011 and, since taking over the company's operation, "has been working cooperatively with the government in developing the terms of (the) settlement," US EPA said.

USEPA will receive half of the $27 million fine, with the remainder divvied up between West Virginia ($8,937,500), Pennsylvania ($4,125,000) and Kentucky ($687,500) based on the number of violations within their borders.

The consent decree is subject to a 30-day public comment period and court approval, they said.