No One Cared That Their Town Was Being Polluted, So Residents Sued the Coal Company Themselves

A group of Pennsylvanians fight for their right to safe drinking water.

(Photo: Patrick Grenter / Center for Coalfield Justice)
Rachel is a science journalist writing for venues such as The New York Times and Smithsonian.

Fishermen and hikers—many of whom had roved the woods surrounding their hometown for decades—knew something was amiss with the streams around Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. Locals in this corner of the Keystone state are all too familiar with pollution issues plaguing their region, which houses some of the country’s largest longwall mines as well as more recent fracking operations.

“Things just didn’t seem right—they saw strange things coming out of some of the mine outfalls that didn’t belong there,” said attorney Patrick Grenter, the executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice who eventually looked into the case. “They tested the water themselves, and saw high numbers of worrisome pollutants coming out of this facility.”

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The citizens suspected the pollutants originated at Emerald Coal Resources LP, which began operations in 1977 and manages the nearby Emerald Mine No. 1. On average, the company digs up several million tons of coal each year.

The concerned group started with phone calls and letters to Emerald Coal, pointing out the pollution issue and asking the organization to clean up its operation. The company, they said, did not react or respond to the inquiries.

Samantha Davison, a spokesperson at Alpha Natural Resources, Emerald Coal’s parent company based in Bristol, Virginia, contested that claim, however. “I’m not aware of that situation, and I would find it very difficult to believe that we would not have responded in some way,” she said.

Dissatisfied with Emerald’s reaction, the group brought its complaints to Grenter at the Center for Coalfield Justice. Founded in 1994 by a coalition of grassroots groups, the organization helps to empower and inform citizens as well as improve policy surrounding fossil fuel extraction in the region.

Coalfield Justice takes advantage of a feature built into the Clean Water Act that allows citizen’s groups to sue for lack of enforcement of pollution standards and seek penalties of up to $37,500 per day for violations. Thousands of such cases have arisen around the country since the Act’s inception in 1972. “We as citizens who care about water quality have the tools at our disposal; it’s just up to us to use them,” Grenter pointed out.

The center pulled Emerald Coal’s discharge monitoring reports—or self-reported forms required by law that detail a company’s environmental violations—from the past five years. The documents revealed hundreds of recurring violations, ranging from aluminum and manganese pollution to excessive suspended solid discharge and failure to monitor and report pollution levels. “We saw a huge pattern of violations—Emerald’s record was particularly egregious,” Grenter said. “This indicates either a systematic unwillingness or an inability to follow the law.”

Davison counters, however, that Alpha Natural Resources and its companies abide by state and federal regulations and work to mitigate potential issues. “We realize that our employees live and work in that community, and that we have to be good neighbors and environmental stewards—we want to do that,” she said. If the company felt that there were any potential pollution risks, she said, they would have taken action to correct those problems.

On October 25, with the backing of Earthrise Law Center in Massachusetts, the Center for Coalfield Justice filed a formal notice to Emerald Coal, pointing out that they had evidence the company’s pollution levels exceeded those permitted by the Clean Water Act and that they had reason to believe those illegal discharges would continue to occur based upon Emerald Coal’s past record of continuous violations.

By law, citizens who file such a complaint must wait 60 days after giving a notice of intent before pursuing violations in court. This also gives the state or federal government—which so far, Grenter said, had not issued so much as a fine to Emerald Coal Resources LP—time to speak up and conduct its own investigations. Davison, however, said that Emerald has been working in tandem with the EPA and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection long before any notice was received or lawsuit filed.

For Coalfield Justice, the letter did not produce the desired effect. “We certainly know the notice was delivered,” Grenter said. “But we just never heard from them at all—and that’s unusual.”

Davison said she did not know the specifics of why Alpha Natural Resources decided the notice did not warrant a response, but that Alpha and Emerald Coal had been “consistently working on a solution to any potential problems.”

“That was our first goal,” she said, “not necessarily always responding to a suit or an intention to sue.”

As promised, on December 31, the Center for Coalfield Justice brought the case to court. Grenter said he still holds out hope that the federal government will step in and take up the investigation, but that the citizens and his organization are ready to move forward with the case if not. “Our ultimate goal is to see the violations stop and the environment protected,” he said. “Whatever way we can go to reach that goal is something that we’re open to.”

Alpha Natural Resources, however, expresses similar views.

“I think we all have the same goal of making sure things are running correctly and of doing the right thing for the environment and communities in which we live and work,” Davison said. She added that Alpha is currently investigating and testing a number of different technologies for perfecting its water treatment systems.

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