Clean Water Act Comes Through for the Black Warrior River

A victory for the Black Warrior River!

Black Warrior River | Photo by Nelson Brooke

The Clean Water Act is getting a workout these days protecting water for people and nature. Today, we are happy to share a great victory on the Black Warrior River, which we listed as one of America’s Most Endangered Rivers® of 2011 and 2013! Our annual report highlighted the impacts that coal mining has had on this watershed that is home to 127 freshwater fish species (4 federally endangered), 36 species of mussels (5 federally endangered), 15 turtle species (1 federally threatened), and numerous other aquatic species.

Shepard Bend on the Black Warrior River | Photo by Nelson Brooke
Shepard Bend on the Black Warrior River | Photo by Nelson Brooke

In a major victory for the health of the Black Warrior River, our partners over at Black Warrior Riverkeeper (and its attorneys, the Southern Environmental Law Center and Public Justice), have lodged a proposed Consent Decree in federal court which, if approved by the Court after a 45-day comment period by the U.S. Department of Justice, will force Drummond Company to clean up its abandoned Maxine Mine site. Consent decrees under the Clean Water Act work to hold corporate polluters accountable for violating environmental laws and permit requirements.

The proposed Consent Decree follows more than five years of litigation to force Drummond to stop discharges of acid mine drainage from a massive six-million-cubic-yard coal mine waste pile at the site near Praco, Alabama. Located on the banks of the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, the site has continued to discharge polluted water without a permit since mining operations ceased in the 1980s, harming an invaluable natural resource for residents across Alabama.

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“This Clean Water Act victory for the Locust Fork is pivotal for everyone who loves to swim, fish, paddle and boat on the river,” said Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper. “Maxine Mine’s acid mine drainage has polluted the Locust Fork for decades, and it’s time the site is cleaned up to protect the health of the river and the people and wildlife who depend on it.”

Under the terms of the Consent Decree, Drummond must remediate the site to eliminate discharges of acidic drainage, including sediment, metals such as iron, manganese and aluminum, and other pollutants.

The Consent Decree specifies that Drummond must comply with pollution limits by a specified date, and that the new limits apply even if a less stringent permit is issued by the state. If Drummond fails to meet the final compliance deadline, the Decree imposes penalties of $1,750 per day. Drummond will also be required to set aside funds to maintain and operate treatment systems for at least 30 years. Finally, Drummond must pay $2.65 million in litigation costs and $1 million for a Supplemental Environmental Project to mitigate the effects of its past pollution in the Locust Fork watershed.

Black Warrior River | Shepard's Bend Mine on the Black Warrior River
Black Warrior River | Shepard’s Bend Mine on the Black Warrior River | Photo by Nelson Brooke

Background

Once widely inhabited by Native Americans, the Black Warrior River watershed now provides drinking water to many of Alabama’s population centers, including Tuscaloosa (home of the University of Alabama) and Birmingham (Alabama’s largest city, which obtains approximately half its drinking water from the watershed). The river and its tributaries are national destinations for fishing, boating, paddling, swimming and other recreation. 

In June 2016, Black Warrior Riverkeeper filed a notice of intent to sue Drummond to stop the continuous and unpermitted polluted discharges of acidic runoff and mine drainage into the Locust Fork and its tributaries from the Maxine Mine site. Besides being a continuous source of acid mine drainage, the coal mine waste has completely filled what was once a tributary of the Locust Fork.

In September 2016, the groups filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. In order to address the ongoing pollution and storage of coal mine waste on the Locust Fork, the groups were seeking removal of the mining waste, remediation and/or restoration of contaminated streams, and any other necessary measures by Drummond to stop the illegal discharges at the site.

Black Warrior River | Photo by David Smither
Black Warrior River | Photo by David Smither

In May 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama ruled that the surface water discharges of acidic water contaminated with metals and other pollutants violated the Clean Water Act.

In January 2022, the Court ruled that contaminated sub-surface discharges from the site into the river constitute illegal discharges of pollutants through groundwater in violation of the Clean Water Act.

These rulings set important precedent for similar sites in Alabama and the Southeast, affirming the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act for both surface water and groundwater pollution.

For an interactive map showing the Maxine Mine site, click here.

For a copy of the proposed Consent Decree, click here.

Other Related Victories:

Following up on the Shepherd Bend Mine issue highlighted in our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® listings— building on our listings, the pressure from the dedicated work of our partners led Drummond to abandon their permits for the project in 2015.

Then in 2016, we shared a victory where Alabama’s citizens no longer risk the imposition of attorneys’ fees and costs when exercising their rights under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.

Also, check out this visual journey along the Black Warrior River from Nelson Brooke at Black Warrior Riverkeeper!

Wait! There’s More Work to Be Done! Alabama has TWO rivers included on the 2022 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers®the Mobile and Coosa rivers!! TAKE ACTION TODAY to help us see more successes like on the Black Warrior River!

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