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Alpha Natural Resources to pay record $227.5M in water pollution settlement

| Thursday, March 6, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Coal producer Alpha Natural Resources Inc. has agreed to $227.5 million in penalties and other costs to settle federal allegations that it illegally dumped large amounts of toxins into waterways in Pennsylvania and four other states for seven years.

“Today's agreement is good news for communities across Appalachia, who have too often been vulnerable to polluters who disregard the law,” said Robert G. Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The company will pay $27.5 million in penalties and spend $200 million upgrading its wastewater treatment systems to reduce illegal discharges under the settlement filed on Wednesday in federal court in West Virginia.

The fine is the largest assessed under federal clean water rules. Four Western Pennsylvania mines were involved in the case. The state Department of Environmental Protection, which was part of the negotiations, said the state will get $4.125 million from the fines to use in clean water programs.

Alpha's mines dumped illegally high amounts of iron, aluminum, selenium and other pollutants at least 6,289 times, creating a risk to aquatic life, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“Finally. This was a long haul,” said Aimee Erickson, executive director at the Citizens Coal Council in Bridgeville. Her group has filed its own lawsuit against Alpha and told EPA about Alpha's own records showing high pollution levels in 2010. “(Alpha has) been polluting for so long. As long as they got away with it, they kept doing it.”

More than a quarter of those violations came from sites in Greene and Westmoreland counties, according to the Justice Department. Bristol, Va.-based Alpha owns the Amfire Mining Co. of Latrobe and Emerald Coal Resources LP, Cumberland Coal Resources LP and Alpha PA Coal Terminal LLC, all based out of Waynesburg, the Justice Department said.

Alpha, which signed a consent decree with the federal government on Feb. 10, agreed to build new treatment plants and expand its audits for complying with environmental permits at 79 active coal mines and 25 coal-processing plants. It began many of its new measures before signing the agreement, the company said in a news release.

“This consent decree provides a framework for our efforts to become fully compliant with our environmental permits, specifically under the Clean Water Act,” said Gene Kitts, Alpha's senior vice president of environmental affairs.

Discharges also occurred in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Alpha and its subsidiaries discharged heavy metals and other contaminants harmful to fish and other wildlife from nearly 800 pipes directly into rivers, streams and tributaries, according to the government.

Monitoring records attached to the complaint show that in some cases, the releases exceeded permit limits by 35 times.

Half of the fine will go to the federal government. West Virginia had the most discharges and received the largest share of the fine among the states, $8.9 million.

The historic penalty comes during tough times for Alpha and its industry. Alpha, the nation's third largest coal supplier, lost $1.1 billion last year. Its shares have fallen nearly 70 percent in two years, closing down 7 cents at $5.24 on Wednesday.

Alpha acquired Massey Energy in 2011 when that company was in the midst of scandal over a deadly explosion at a West Virginia mine. More than half of the violations covered by the new settlement stemmed from Massey's operations, and the EPA said Alpha and Massey had long histories of noncompliance. Massey was fined $20 million in 2008 by the federal government for similar violations of water pollution laws.

The federal government has been cracking down on air pollution from coal-fired power plants. As cheap natural gas has created a competitive alternative to coal in the past three years, the EPA has accelerated a push to cut carbon, mercury and other toxic air pollutants that come from burning coal.

The action against Alpha could prompt regulators to take a closer look at records companies keep to verify they are in compliance with environmental regulations, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. He said more cases are likely to follow.

Timothy Puko is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or The Associated Press contributed.

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