Wrong assumption: The Alpha decree does not allege illegal toxic discharges

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The Post-Gazette’s March 8 editorial “Pollution’s Price: Will a Stiff Fine Change the Ways of Alpha Coal?” completely misses the mark on the nature of the consent decree Alpha signed, actions we’ve already taken to improve performance and our compliance history and commitment.

The most egregious error in your editorial is one of assumption. Nowhere in the Environmental Protection Agency’s complaint, their press release or in the 90-plus pages of the consent decree is there an allegation that Alpha illegally engaged in “toxic discharges” of any nature, as you assume. In fact, most of the discharges in question were for naturally occurring elements in the earth such as aluminum, iron, selenium and manganese. These are controlled to protect aquatic organisms that are sensitive to changes in their environment.

With as varied a group of mining operations and permit conditions as we have, our people do an outstanding job in maintaining environmental compliance. Of the more than 3 million chances to exceed a permit limit that Alpha subsidiaries experienced over the seven-year period covered by the consent decree, the EPA said that 6,289 water results exceeded permit limits. While that’s 99.8 percent compliance, we know that even 0.2 percent is not acceptable.

To that end, in mid-2012, well before the consent decree was finalized, Alpha began working on solutions and proactively implementing many of its requirements such as comprehensive audits and an enterprise-wide environmental database. At several sites we’ve completed or are in the process of completing approximately $160 million worth of treatment technologies. The lion’s share of that investment will be made at our Pennsylvania longwall mines for an advanced water treatment system that will be completed and operating by September 2016.

Your editorial criticized Alpha for suggesting that certain water quality limits, such as those for selenium and aluminum, are potentially over-protective in certain regions and should be revised if scientifically justified. Even EPA, by working with several states in reviewing the standards, has tacitly acknowledged that these limits may be overly strict when applied to Appalachian headwater streams.

To use a different speed limit analogy, if no one ever questioned the appropriateness of a limit we might still have the national 55 mph speed limit from the 1970s. That arbitrarily imposed limit was not appropriate for every highway in the nation and the same is true for certain water quality limits.

At the end of the day we recognize that we must operate responsibly within the limits imposed on us, no matter how stringent they are. The agreement we signed represents our commitment to make 99.8 percent our baseline to do better.

Gene Kitts is senior vice president for environmental and regulatory affairs for Alpha Natural Resources.

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