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

Health & Wellness  (tags: conservation, destruction, energy, endangered, healthconditions, humans, oceans, pollution, protection, science, water, illness, ethics, environment, risks, safety, society, warning )

- 1922 days ago -
A group of Pennsylvanians fight for their right to safe drinking water.

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JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 9:12 am

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.
By Rachel Nuwer
January 14, 2013
No One Cared That Their Town Was Being Polluted, So Residents Sued the Coal Company Themselves
(Photo: Patrick Grenter / Center for Coalfield Justice)

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.
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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.

Nicole W (646)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 9:15 am
more people need to take the same stand, thank you JL

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 9:18 am
I think you're right Nicole--and it may also apply to fracking besides coal. You cannot currently send a star to Nicole because you have done so within the last week.

. (0)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 10:21 am
Excellent. In these types of matters class action and civil suits usually are the best way to go.

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 10:22 am
You cannot currently send a star to Michael because you have done so within the last week.

Jim P (3257)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 10:39 am
Here is a movie just released along the same vein in safe drinking water, pollution and the film was shot in
Pennsylvania. "Promised Land".

Promised Land is the new contemporary drama directed by Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk). Matt Damon plays Steve Butler, an ace corporate salesman who is sent along with his partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to close a key rural town in his company's expansion plans. With the town having been hit hard by the economic decline of recent years, the two outsiders see the local citizens as likely to accept their company's offer, for drilling rights to their properties, as much-needed relief. What seems like an easy job for the duo becomes complicated by the objection of a respected schoolteacher (Hal Holbrook) with support from a grassroots campaign led by another man (John Krasinski), as well as the interest of a local woman (Rosemarie DeWitt). Promised Land explores America at the crossroads where big business and the strength of small-town community converge.

Official site:

Ty, JL.

David C (133)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 11:30 am
people power!!!

Melania Padilla (122)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 11:55 am
Great, that is what we need to do!!

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 12:04 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Melania because you have done so within the last week.

John B (185)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 3:23 pm
Thanks J.L. for another great post. Read and noted.

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 3:32 pm
You are welcome John.

Kit B (276)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 3:55 pm

The greatest obstacle we face is that we think in terms of taking on the whole Federal government, and that does seem overwhelming. I applaud this community for thinking local and acting. Wouldn't it be great if everyone thought this way? Take on problems one at time, community by community and we can win.

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 4:22 pm
That's the spirit and the American way! You cannot currently send a star to Kit because you have done so within the last week.

greenplanet e (155)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 4:53 pm
Impressive community activism, caring and work. Kudos.

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 5:00 pm
I agree Greenplanet

Christeen Anderson (370)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 6:20 pm
Good for them. Please keep up the great work. Thank you.

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 6:36 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Christeen because you have done so within the last week.

Terry V (30)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 7:04 pm

Pollution is a Global Killer

Polution and Global Warming

JL A (281)
Tuesday January 15, 2013, 7:09 pm
You cannot currently send a star to Terry because you have done so within the last week.

paul m (93)
Wednesday January 16, 2013, 7:26 am


Lin Penrose (92)
Wednesday January 16, 2013, 9:02 am
Thanks J.L. A daunting task, taking on big business, some federal government agencies, and the many laws that have been put in place to retard citizen actions, but doable with citizens who are stanch in protecting their home environment. Hope more towns and cities will follow their example, since more than just local environments are at severe risk. We are all "down-stream" and we are all connected on and to this planet that cycles Everything, even the poisons we humans have created and released.

JL A (281)
Wednesday January 16, 2013, 12:21 pm
You are welcome Lin--and stated the context so eloquently as you reminded me of how far a reach DDT proved to have in the studies in the early 1970's. You cannot currently send a star to Lin because you have done so within the last week.
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