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Leading coal producer agrees to pay record fine to clean polluted waters across Appalachia

March 5, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
In the largest fine ever for water pollution permit violations, Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal producers in the nation, agreed to pay $27 million in fines and spend another $200 million to clean up its toxic discharges in five Appalachian states. Gwen Ifill talks to Dina Cappiello of The Associated Press to discuss the EPA settlement.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: We return now to the EPA’s settlement today with one of the largest coal producers in the country over pollution in five Appalachian states.

Dina Cappiello, the national environment reporter for the Associated Press, joins us now.

Twenty-seven-and-a-half million dollars in fines, $200 million for the cleanup, in the range of penalty, how does this rank?

DINA CAPPIELLO, The Associated Press: Well, it’s the biggest ever for a company that violated its water pollution permits.

So, obviously, other companies have paid big fines in the past. In 2008, the EPA settled with Massey Energy, another coal company, for $20 million. But this is the biggest ever for a company that violated permits it had from states.

GWEN IFILL: Now, describe to us how widespread the pollution was.

DINA CAPPIELLO: The numbers here are pretty staggering.

You’re talking over 6,000 violations, violations over 300 state-issued permits, hundreds of streams, tributaries and rivers, 79 active coal mines, 25 coal processing plants, where they put the coal and wash it before it’s shipped, over five Appalachian states. So it’s a pretty massive coverage area for the settlement.

GWEN IFILL: So, how — how did the discharges occur?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Well, actually, they’re actually piped into these waterways. And states issue permits for these companies that give them certain limits.

And in this case, this company repeatedly, from 2006 to 2013, exceeded those limits that they were actually authorized to discharge.

GWEN IFILL: So, it’s not illegal to discharge; it’s just that there’s a cap on how much they can discharge?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Correct. They have an amount, and they went over that amount repeatedly, in some cases over 35 times the limit that was put into their permits.

GWEN IFILL: So, how many violations?  You said 6,000?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Over 6,000.

GWEN IFILL: Just with this one company?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Just with this one company.

It’s a very big coal company, a big conglomerate. The settlement covers Alpha Natural Resources, which is based in Virginia, and 66 of its subsidiaries.

GWEN IFILL: What — when we talk about pollution, what kind of pollutants are we talking about?

DINA CAPPIELLO: So, what we’re talking about here is, we’re talking about total suspended solids is what the EPA would talk about.

And these are just kind of bits and pieces of things that come out in the coal mining process, but they also contain heavy metals, which are toxic to fish and other wildlife. We saw this recently in the Duke Energy case, the big coal ash spill down in North Carolina, included many of the same contaminants.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

DINA CAPPIELLO: And while they’re not — they’re not water quality or drinking water problems that are usually filtered out in treatment, they are problems for the ecology of these waterways.

GWEN IFILL: We talked about the North Carolina case. And we of course covered pretty closely the West Virginia case from a few weeks — two months ago, when we — we found all out that water was contaminated, in fact, may still be. Is there a connection?

DINA CAPPIELLO: The connection is coal.

So, you know, it’s — it’s widely known in, and the EPA has acknowledged this, that coal has a really big footprint on our water resources. And I’m talking about from the mining of coal all the way to the burning of coal for electricity and the waste created by that process, which is what happened in Duke — in the Duke Energy case in North Carolina.

So it’s about coal. The West Virginia spill was a spill of a chemical used to clean coal.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

DINA CAPPIELLO: This is a — we’re talking right now about discharges from mines that happen on a routine basis. And then, in North Carolina, it was about coal ash spilling into a waterway. This is ash that’s collected actually by air pollution equipment. And so we’re actually transferring what we’re taking out of the air into waterways.

GWEN IFILL: So, we know that this was a settlement. So, how do the coal — how does the coal industry respond to this?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Well, Alpha — in my interviews, Alpha was very interesting. I mean, obviously, they acknowledged they had these violations, but they made the point that they’re a very large company.

They actually acquired Massey Energy in 2011, increasing their portfolio, increasing the number of permits. They have over 700 permits, they told me, from state officials. They have five — thousands of discharge points. So, they said, you know what? In the grand scheme of things…

GWEN IFILL: This wasn’t a lot?

DINA CAPPIELLO: … this wasn’t a lot. This is 2 percent of — we’re 99.8 percent in compliance most of the time.

GWEN IFILL: So it’s the cost of doing business?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Well, they said, hey, we are — we predicted this was going to happen. We knew we were probably going to have to pay this. We have accounted for it. We expect no layoffs. But what they’re saying is, we’re a very large company, we can do better, but we do pretty well right now.

GWEN IFILL: OK. So, aside from the $27 million in fines, $27.5 million, there’s $200 million for cleanup. What do these companies, what is it required that they do now?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Well, they’re going to have to put wastewater treatment systems on their — on these discharges on these mines.

Right now, basically, these wastes are just kind of collected and they kind of settle out in very crude systems before they just are emptied into the stream. They are going to have to do — boost monitoring. They are going to have to get a third party to validate that monitoring.

And they are going to have to digitally record the violations. In many cases, these companies are submitting just reams of actual paper to these states, and the states don’t really have the available resources to keep track of the violations that are self-reported by these companies and then follow up on them.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about self-reporting, does this — does a settlement like this tell us that the EPA is getting tougher or that companies are just stepping up?

DINA CAPPIELLO: I think the EPA, with both the 2008 settlement and this settlement today, is keeping tabs and kind of knows that this is — this is a tough thing to get their arms around, and states need help to kind of police this.

There’s just so much of it out there. There are so many mines, so many discharge points. And I think you are going to see very quickly Republicans in Congress and the coal industry and their allies talk about this in the broader context of what Obama is doing with coal, which is really cracking down on its air pollution — you had the first ever carbon pollution limits that are proposed for new power plants — as a larger kind of take on coal.

GWEN IFILL: So there’s actually a crackdown under way of some kind? They’re not wrong about that?

DINA CAPPIELLO: Correct.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

Dina Cappiello of the Associated Press, thank you.

DINA CAPPIELLO: Thank you.