U.S. V. Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (S.D. W.Va.)

Appalachian Trail about 5.2 miles northeast of the Delaware Water Gap in Worthington State Forest, New Jersey. Source: Wikipedia

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Illegal Discharges of Pollutants into Appalachian Waters

Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (Alpha) is one of the nation’s largest coal producers, with operations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee.  For many years, Alpha’s coal mining operations discharged wastewater in excess of pollutant limits into hundreds of rivers and streams in Appalachia, in violation of the Clean Water Act. 

In total, based on Alpha’s own reports to state and federal regulators, the United States documented at least 6,289 violations of permit limits at Alpha coal mining operations between 2006 and 2013.  These violations included discharges in excess of iron, pH, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese, selenium, and osmotic pressure limits at nearly 800 different discharge points. 

Enforcement Background

The United States’ investigations into Alpha’s Clean Water Act violations began with the settlement of similar claims against Massey Energy Company (Massey Energy) in 2008.  The 2008 Massey Energy settlement imposed a $20 million civil penalty, along with measures intended to address a long history of permit limit violations at Massey Energy coal mines.  However, Massey Energy operations continued to violate Clean Water Act limits even after the settlement.  In 2011, Alpha acquired Massey in its entirety, and the Department of Justice’s Environmental Enforcement Section commenced negotiations with Alpha on Clean Water Act violations at both the legacy Massey Energy operations and Alpha’s other Appalachian coal mining operations.  West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky joined as co-plaintiffs in the negotiations. 

2014 Consent Decree

In March of 2014, the United States and its state partners lodged a consent decree resolving their Clean Water Act claims against Alpha and Alpha’s Appalachian subsidiaries.  Under the consent decree, Alpha, Alpha Appalachian Holdings (formerly Massey Energy), and 66 subsidiaries have agreed to spend an estimated $200 million on measures to ensure compliance and pay a $27.5 million civil penalty, the largest civil penalty ever for wastewater discharge violations.  Compliance measures include:

  • Systematic improvements to better identify, track, and prevent environmental problems, including a company-wide Environmental Management System, periodic internal and third-party environmental audits and inspections, comprehensive databases to track violations and compliance efforts, and regular environmental training. 
  • Automatic and escalating stipulated penalties for any future violations.
  • Implementation of an advanced wastewater treatment system using nanofiltration technology to address osmotic pressure violations in Pennsylvania.
  • Implementation of specified compliance plans to address selenium violations in West Virginia, including construction of four biological treatment systems. 

The systematic improvements, violation response measures, and automatic stipulated penalties required by the consent decree apply across all of Alpha’s current and future mining operations in Appalachia, regardless of their compliance history. 

In the News

March 5, 2014

 Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (Alpha), one of the nation’s largest coal companies, Alpha Appalachian Holdings (formerly Massey Energy), and 66 subsidiaries have agreed to spend an estimated $200 million on installing and operating wastewater treatment systems and implementing comprehensive, system-wide upgrades to reduce discharges of pollution from coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today. Overall, the settlement covers approximately 79 active mines and 25 processing plants in these five states.

Link To Press Release


Updated May 14, 2015