Controversial mine permit approved by regulatory commission
by Daniel Gaddy
Aug 21, 2011 | 2428 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A state regulatory commission on Friday struck down a conservation group’s appeal challenging the permit of a controversial strip mine off the Black Warrior River near Cordova.

“We’re disappointed in the decision. We think there's sufficient evidence that there would be water quality violations from this mine,” said Keith Johnston, managing attorney for the Birmingham office of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The proposed mine, called Shepherd’s Bend, could span as much as 1,700 acres at the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior. Several groups, including the Birmingham City Council, and hundreds of citizens have opposed the operation, saying it could affect the drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people in the Birmingham area, including Jasper.

Shepherd’s Bend could operate around 800 feet from the Birmingham Water Works Board’s Western Filtration Plant. Water board officials have said discharge from the Shepherd’s Bend Mine could affect the water quality. The results, they say, could range from higher treatment costs to drinking water that tastes bad and stains clothes and tubs.

Last year, the mining project’s permit applications were approved by the Alabama Surface Mining Commission and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, which oversees mining discharge into waterways like the Warrior River.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, representing Black Warrior Riverkeeper, has challenged the permits, saying ADEM approved the mine’s applications without a Pollution Abatement and Prevention Plan. This PAP plan is a document specific to the mine that details how the operation will prevent contaminants from being discharged into the river.

SELC and Riverkeeper representatives went before a hearing officer for the Alabama Environmental Management Commission earlier this year to provide evidence that the mining operation could affect water quality in the area. They provided two affidavits supporting their claims, one from a biology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the other from a senior engineer at an Atlanta-based environmental consulting firm.

Both of the documents stated, “ADEM could not possibly have determined that discharges from the Shepherd Bend mine would not impair water quality or cause violation of water quality standards without reviewing a complete PAP plan for the site.”

Johnston also said SELC attorneys provided evidence that the permit issued by ADEM had expired in January of 2010 because construction had not begun at the mining site.

After reviewing the evidence in July, an EMC hearing officer filed a report suggesting the approval of the mining application. The report said the evidence is “contradictory, confusing and in some instances inconclusive,” and it does not establish significant proof that the mine could violate laws regarding water quality.

The hearing officer, James Hampton, urged the commission to “examine his determination carefully in light of contradictory evidence.”

Johnston said the EMC approved the mine permit within minutes during Friday’s meeting in Montgomery.

“There was no discussion. They just adopted the hearing officer's report,” he said.

The Eagle’s efforts to reach ADEM spokespersons were unsuccessful Friday afternoon.

Johnston said the SELC will strongly consider challenging the EMC ruling in Montgomery circuit court.

The University of Alabama owns most of the land for the proposed mine, and Black Warrior Riverkeeper officials said they will continue to implore the university to not lease the property to Shepherd’s Bend.

“Without UA’s land and minerals, mining across the river from our drinking water intake may not be economically feasible.” said Charles Scribner, executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, in a press release.