Knoxville, Tenn. – Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Robert Martineau, Jr., has fined Premium Coal Company, Inc., $50,000 for the massive “black water” spill into the New River from the Baldwin Processing Plant in early January. Over an uncertain amount of time, an estimated 1.4 million gallons of black water (a by-product of coal processing) was released into the New River, an American Heritage Exceptional River. The spill was so sizeable, it went upstream 100 feet and was sighted downstream 40 miles from the Baldwin plant, located near Frozen Head State Park in Anderson County. While Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) is pleased TDEC has issued a penalty, the fine of approximately 3.5 cents per gallon of contaminated discharge is unacceptable.
The Baldwin processing plant is owned by Premium Coal, which is owned by James C. Justice II of West Virginia. The Justice family also owns National Coal Corporation. Over the past several years, SOCM and its partner organizations have been monitoring numerous and continuous violations on the part of National Coal Corp. SOCM, in partnership with the Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Sierra Club filed three more lawsuits against National Coal in November to enforce the pollution limits on two coal mines and one coal mine waste disposal area.
“Mr. Justice has a history of violations,” said SOCM Board member Patrick Morales. “Yet, TDEC still only fined $50,000 for this spill, which caused massive pollution in the New River. How does TDEC expect this small fine to deter future bad acts by Mr. Justice’s companies?” Morales is also a member of the E3 (Energy, Ecology and Environmental Justice) committee and went to investigate the spill when SOCM received word of it.
In keeping with what appears to be Premium Coal’s business practices, the Baldwin Processing Plant did not come forward to self-report the spill to OSM (the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement) and TDEC as required by law. The spill was discovered by a local resident and reported to OSM via a citizen’s complaint.
In response to the New River Spill and numerous other violations by large, out-of-state coal companies (many of which go un-penalized or un-paid), SOCM and its partners have drafted the Responsible Coal Operators Act of 2012 (SB3453 Southerland/HB3199 Hawk), which is making its way through the state legislature this year. This “Bad Actor Bill” would allow TDEC to look at past violations when deciding whether or not to issue or renew a permit.
“The purpose of a fine is to discourage and punish a violation or act. The Responsible Coal Operators Act of 2012 is necessary to protect our state from these ‘bad actors,’” Morales said. “How much of our state are we willing to give away to a man who does not live here, never has, and who is completely consumed with making money at the peril of our state?”
Premium Coal has 30 days from receipt of the order to pay the penalty for the New River spill. The order was signed on the 21st of March. Premium Coal can appeal.
SOCM will continue to monitor the fallout from the spill. For more information on the Bad Actor Bill, see our website, www.socm.org.