By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008
One of Appalachia's coal-mining giants agreed yesterday to pay $20 million, the largest such fine imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, after an investigation found more than 4,500 instances in which mine runoff tainted nearby waters.
Massey Energy Co., based in Richmond, also pledged to make about $10 million worth of upgrades to prevent such violations and to clean up a West Virginia stream ravaged by mining-related pollution. The terms were mandated in a consent decree filed yesterday in federal court in Charleston, W.Va.
The previous largest fine for violating federal Clean Water Act permits, designed to keep rivers and streams clean, was more than $12 million. It was levied against Virginia's Smithfield Foods in 1997 for contaminating waterways with hog waste.
The EPA sued Massey in May. The agency said the penalty was triggered by the scale of Massey's misconduct. Robert Klepp, the lead EPA attorney in the case, said dirt, powdered coal and metals leaked out of dozens of Massey-owned sites and into waterways in West Virginia and Kentucky for almost seven years.
"This is a signal that, you know, EPA is on the job," Klepp said. A years-long investigation had shown that Massey neglected environmental safeguards, he said, adding: "They had other priorities. We think this agreement is going to refocus the priorities."
Massey is among the top 10 coal companies in the country, and it dominates in central Appalachia, a region that includes Virginia, Kentucky and southern West Virginia.
Roger Hendriksen, a spokesman for Massey, said that the company's violations were generally minor and that there had been no serious damage to the environment as a result.
But, he said, Massey agreed to settle with the government because of the potential for an even larger fine, which would have resulted had every violation earned the maximum punishment.
"The perceived potential liability had become a concern for Massey shareholders," Hendriksen said. Only a fraction of the company's environmental tests showed problems, he said. "I suppose one could say that we have not been perfect, but we are, again, in compliance . . . 99 percent of the time," he said.
Federal officials and environmentalists said the company's violations had the potential to upset life in the creeks and rivers that run through hollows near the mines. Klepp said that even simple dirt, in high amounts, could clog the gills of fish or bury tiny animals living on a creek bottom.
"Everything you imagine in your mind, in terms of a mountain stream -- that vanishes" in the worst cases, Klepp said. In some cases, he said, tests showed that runoff from Massey mines contained 10 times as much dirt as it was supposed to. "You can imagine what water like that looks like coming out of the pipe," he said.
Many of the polluting sites were strip mines or "mountaintop removal" sites. At the mountaintop mines, entire Appalachian peaks are sheared off to reach the seams of coal inside. Rainwater can carry loose earth and coal residue as it flows from the sites, and the mines can open pockets of underground water, which becomes polluted as it leaks out.
In many instances, federal officials said, Massey's violations stemmed from an inability to corral this polluted water, which allowed it to wash into streams untreated. The improvements mandated in the decree include a new system that will provide fast results of water testing so that problems can be spotted quickly.
The company will also have to pay to clean the Little Coal River, a stream in southwestern West Virginia that has been heavily affected by mine waste. The $20 million fine will be paid into the U.S. Treasury's general fund, Klepp said.
Environmentalists in West Virginia and Washington applauded the fine yesterday and noted other environmental damage caused by mountaintop-removal mines in that area.
"We lose the fish, we bury the streams," said Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. "It's like putting the mountain through a Mixmaster, a blender kind of thing, and putting it back."