National Coal to Exit Surface Mining Business

Nashville, TN – Yesterday, Sierra Club, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Tennessee Clean Water Network, and National Coal LLC reached an agreement in pending litigation surrounding Clean Water Act (CWA) violations at three sites owned by the mining company – Zeb Mountain Mine (also known as Mine 7), Mine 14 and the Jordan Ridge Refuse Disposal Area – as well as challenges to the Clean Water Act discharge permit for the Zeb Mine. This settlement will effectively end National Coal’s participation in surface coal mining in Appalachia. The major points in the agreement require National Coal to stop mining at Zeb and Mine 14 within the next 90 days, to refrain from seeking new mining permits for surface mines, to come into compliance with its permit limits, to pay penalties for its past permit violations, and to modify its permit for the Zeb Mine to include selenium limits on those discharges that do not already have them. In exchange, the groups have agreed to dismiss their Clean Water Act enforcement suits and their administrative permit challenge, and to not pursue claims against the company based on violations of the Endangered Species Act at the Zeb Mine.

“National Coal’s commitment to stop surface coal mining, like Patriot Coal before them, provides still more confirmation that mountaintop removal mining is not in the best interest of Appalachian communities and is no longer economically viable,” said Mary Anne Hitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “This settlement is another step on the path towards ending years of destruction on our mountaintops, mining pollution in our waterways and injustice for the people of Appalachia.”

At Jordan Ridge, the groups argued that National Coal has violated the Clean Water Act due to its discharges of high levels of mining pollution, including selenium, into nearby waterways. The groups argued that National Coal was violating the Clean Water Act at Zeb Mountain – the largest surface coal mine in Tennessee – and Mine 14 by exceeding the allowable limits for the discharge of certain forms of mining pollution. National Coal will pay penalties of $60,000 to resolve those violations, with the vast majority of those funds going to the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation to fund land acquisition and conservation in the region. National Coal will also agree to pay higher “stipulated” penalties if it continues to violate its permit limits in the future.

“Discharges of sediment, heavy metals and other pollutants have been a concern to us ever since these mining operations began,” said SOCM member Cathie Bird. “The conditions of this settlement can move us in the right direction toward protection of streams and surrounding communities from negative consequences of water pollution.” Cathie is a member of SOCM’s E3 (Energy, Ecology, and Environmental Justice) Committee.

A key provision of the settlement is the implementation of selenium limits at Zeb Mountain.  Selenium, a toxic element that causes reproductive failure and deformities in fish and other forms of aquatic life, is discharged from many surface coal-mining operations across Appalachia. At very high levels, selenium can pose a risk to human health, causing hair and fingernail loss, kidney and liver damage, and damage to the nervous and circulatory systems. Regulators in Tennessee have been slow to implement limits on selenium, and this settlement represents a key step in the reduction of this toxic pollutant in Tennessee waterways.

“This resolution sets a new standard for regulating toxic metal discharges from coal mines in Tennessee, one we hope will be implemented at other mines in the future,” said TCWN Attorney Stephanie Matheny.

“The Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club is immeasurably pleased to finally be able to close the books on the Zeb Mountain mine,” said Axel Ringe of the Tennessee chapter of Sierra Club. “We have fought against the mine since it opened ten years ago. “This settlement will help ensure that National Coal takes appropriate measures to address unlawful pollution from its Zeb Mountain mine — a victory for all Tennesseans.”

National Coal is the second firm to exit the mountaintop removal mining business. National Coal’s decision was preceded, last November, by Patriot coal which settled with the Sierra Club and its allies over Clean Water Act mining pollution violations in West Virginia. National Coal owns three surface coal mines in Tennessee: Zeb Mountain, Mine 14 and Mine 3B.

This agreement was filed in the U.S. District court for the Eastern District of Tennessee at Knoxville. The groups are represented in this matter by Joe Lovett and Mike Becher from Appalachian Mountain Advocates and by Gena Lewis of the Law Office of Gena Lewis. The groups were also represented by Stephanie Matheny of Tennessee Clean Water Network in their challenge to the Zeb Mine permit.

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