Pollution’s price: Will a stiff fine change the ways of Alpha coal?

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To those who think America is conducting a war on coal, it’s time to pay attention to a giant coal company’s war on Americans.

Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which is based in Virginia and has 62 subsidiaries, agreed to pay a $27.5 million fine and spend $200 million on wastewater treatment systems after a history of toxic discharges from its mines in Pennsylvania and four other states.

The fine is the largest for such violations in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency, industrial offenses that make a mockery of the Clean Water Act. Alpha, the nation’s second-largest coal producer, polluted the water of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee by violating permits more than 6,000 times between 2006 and 2013.

Many of those violations occurred in Pennsylvania, at Alpha’s long-wall mining facilities Emerald Coal and Cumberland Coal, both in Greene County. EPA records show that processed water from the Emerald mine was dumped into waters that fed the Monongahela River, while toxic discharges from the Cumberland mine into Whitely Creek were up to 10 times more than permitted.

Citizens Coal Council, a Bridgeville-based environmental group, was instrumental in pressing the case against Alpha. It submitted to the EPA 72,000 pages of documents detailing Alpha’s violations. Although the organization’s vigilance paid off, it’s unfortunate that the public interest was more effectively safeguarded by a small group of advocates, rather than the state Department of Environmental Protection, which was well aware of Alpha’s chronic violations.

Alpha’s conduct has been egregious, and Gene Kitts, its senior vice president of environmental affairs, responded the way so many corporate offenders do. He said his company is making progress on reducing its deficiencies and that it is not satisfied with current performance.

But he also said that discharge limits on certain pollutants are too low and that Alpha will work to raise them — which is not about to inspire confidence by the public. Given the historic fine just slapped on Alpha for its historic violations, it’s like a driver who is caught doing 100 mph on the turnpike telling the state trooper that the speed limit is too low.

Some will say that the stiff fine given Alpha for its violations will send a warning to it and other polluters. But a $27.5 million penalty is negligible to a company with annual revenues of $7 billion. The government needs to figure out how to send big polluters to prison.


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