America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2013: Black Warrior River
At Risk: Drinking water quality and fish and wildlife habitat
Threat: Coal mining
The Black Warrior River is a valuable resource for drinking water, recreation, fishing, and rare fish and wildlife. However, the river’s Mulberry Fork is threatened by the Shepherd Bend Mine, a 1,773 acre coal mine which would discharge polluted wastewater only 800 feet from a major drinking water intake.
To mine the proposed area, Drummond Company must obtain leases from property owners, particularly the University of Alabama. The University must stand up for the health of area residents, students, and drinking water customers by permanently refusing to sell or lease its land and mineral rights at Shepherd Bend for coal mining.
Drinking water for the greater Birmingham area is threatened by a proposed coal mine on property primarily owned by the University of Alabama. Drummond Company’s Shepherd Bend Mine would discharge wastewater into the Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork only 800 feet from the Birmingham Water Works Board’s intake, which provides drinking water for 200,000 citizens.
The Birmingham Water Works Board has offered detailed information about how wastewater discharges from this mine would introduce sediment and toxic pollutants, such as heavy metals, into the drinking water supply. This water contamination could potentially lead to increased treatment costs for customers and decreased water quality. Coal mining communities are also at increased risk of developing cardiopulmonary disease, hypertension, lung disease, and kidney disease.
Permits already approved by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the Alabama Surface Mining Commission (ASMC) allow wastewater discharges containing 10 times the level of iron and 40 times the level of manganese recommended by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Health and engineering experts have encouraged UA not to rely on ADEM’s and ASMC’s judgment, stating that the issued permits are not sufficiently protective of water quality. The permits are inadequate for protection of the river and the drinking water supply for 200,000 people daily.
Drummond has a poor track record; many permit violations at their mines have been documented in recent years. Should contamination issues arise at this mine, it is unlikely state environmental agencies will initiate timely and effective enforcement action to address problems, hold them accountable, and deter future violations.
What Must Be Done
As owner of large portions of land and mineral rights at Shepherd Bend, UA has been asked by countless citizens, businesses, and organizations to take a stand against the mine. However, the coal industry maintains powerful influence throughout Alabama, including sway over UA System’s Board of Trustees, where Drummond Company’s CEO, Garry Neil Drummond, is a Trustee Emeritus. While the University and Trustees claim they have no plans to sell or lease their land and mineral rights at this time, students, the local community, and drinking water customers deserve permanent reassurance. The UA System Trustees must publicly guarantee they will never sell or lease UA’s land and mineral rights at Shepherd Bend for mining, in order to ensure a healthy future for the Black Warrior River and the communities that depend upon it.