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Alabama creeks run black near Tuscaloosa County coal mine, state investigating

AL.com logo AL.com 5/4/2021 Dennis Pillion, al.com

Alabama environmental regulators say they’ve gathered water samples and are waiting on lab tests of two creeks in Tuscaloosa County where the water has turned nearly black near a large underground coal mine.

Meanwhile, neighbors and environmental groups are urging the state to do more to stop the pollution that’s resulted in severely discolored creek water that flows into the Black Warrior River upstream from the city of Tuscaloosa.

“The creek that I’ve known my whole life to be clear — where you could fish, swim, whatever you wanted to do as a kid — is black,” said Patrick Herring, 48, who lives in the unincorporated Griffin Ridge community near the creek. “You can’t even see the bottom of it. And this is not a deep creek.”

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management says it received the first of “several” complaints about discharges to Texas Creek and Davis Creek on April 26 and the next day conducted an inspection of Warrior Met Coal’s Mine No. 7 in Brookwood, collecting water samples upstream and downstream from a discharge point at the mine.

It’s unclear at this point exactly what is being discharged into the creek and how it got there.

Environmental groups believe it is wastewater from the massive underground coal mine. The coal mine has numerous ponds to collect wastewater pumped from the mine 1,400 to 2,100 feet underground and from a facility where coal is washed before transport.

The water discharged into the creek is supposed to meet several water quality standards that are laid out in the mine’s permit for substances like pH, iron, manganese, selenium and dissolved solids.

ADEM says it is investigating whether the company is meeting its pollution control requirements.

“The Department is awaiting the laboratory analysis of the samples for the inspection report to be finalized,” ADEM External Affairs Chief Lynn Battle said in an email. “The Department has been in contact with Warrior Met about the discharge in question and will continue to actively investigate the circumstances in order to resolve the issue.”

The Alabama Surface Mining Commission, which regulates coal mines, has also sent personnel to the site.

Warrior Met Coal sent AL.com a statement through a PR agency saying the company had not received any notice of violations regarding the creeks.

“Warrior Met Coal is proud to report a 99.8% compliance record with the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, and continually prioritizes minimizing the company’s environmental footprint wherever possible,” the company said. “The company has met with representatives from Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the Alabama Surface Mining Commission (ASMC) regarding a citizen’s concern about Davis Creek.

“As of [Monday], Warrior has not been informed of any non-compliant water samples or received any violations.”

Warrior Met Coal is also currently dealing with a labor strike. About 1,100 of its regular employees have been on strike to protest the company’s labor practices since April 1. Warrior Met Coal was formed during the 2016 bankruptcy proceedings of Walter Energy.

But since the strike started, local residents say the pollution has ruined their creek. The worst of the discolored water has been seen in Texas Creek, near Milldale Road in Tuscaloosa County. Texas Creek converges with Davis Creek and flows into the Black Warrior River near Holt Lake, upstream of the city of Tuscaloosa.

Photos taken Friday and Monday show the nearly black water from Texas Creek entering the much cleaner Davis Creek.

Herring, whose family has lived in the area for three generations and who works in a Fairfield steel mill, said Warrior’s response was unacceptable.

“This creek is a landmark of our community, and to know that somebody’s poisoning it and not doing a thing about trying to rectify it or even acknowledge they’re doing it,” he said. “That’s just not okay with me.”

Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke said his group received numerous complaints about the situation last week and visited the site Friday and Monday. He said the water color had not improved over the weekend. He said he observed black staining in the creek bed 2-3 feet above the current water level, which he said suggests that the discoloration has been occurring for some time.

“This is a stream that should be teeming with aquatic life, with very scenic spring-fed, clear water,” Brooke said. “And instead, we’ve got a really bad situation on our hands.”

John Wathen, who runs the environmental group Hurricane Creekkeeper, visited the site with a drone on Monday, capturing aerial videos and photos of the massive detention ponds on the mine site, as well as the discharge point referenced in the ADEM statement. Wathen said his videos clearly show black creek water, as well as oil sheens, beyond the mine’s permitted discharge point.

Warrior Met Coal’s ADEM water permit requires the company to notify the department if “for any reason,” its discharge “potentially threatens human health or welfare,” “potentially threatens fish or aquatic life,” or “causes an in-stream water quality criterion to be exceeded.”

Herring, the neighbor, said he filed complaints with ADEM and the Surface Mining Commission last week, as well as contacted local media outlets with his concerns about the creek. He believes that the company’s labor dispute may be a factor, but that the company should still be required to protect the creeks.

“I don’t care what’s going on with them, they should still keep up their end of the bargain of not ruining our local creeks and waterways,” Herring said.

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