Alabama coal mine appears to leak pollution during workers’ strike
It’s sunny and mid-70’s in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama right now. Normally this would be the ideal conditions for a swim in Davis Creek or Texas Creek. But for now, both are black, full of thick sewage trickle.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has received complaints about pollution in water bodies and is currently investigating the cause. The Alabama Surface Mining Commission also sent environmental regulators to verify it. But Nelson Brooke – the keeper of the Black Warrior River, into which the two streams drain – has done his own investigation and he’s sure he knows where the pollution is coming from.
“It comes 100% from Warrior Met Coal’s number seven underground mine,” said Brooke, who works for the local Waterkeeper Alliance chapter.
As of April 1, 1,100 workers at the Warrior Met Coal Mine, all members of United Mineworkers District 20, have been on strike on alleged unfair labor practices, demanding better pay, more reasonable hours and more time off. This means that the only people who work at Mine Number Seven are the temporary, non-union workers the company brought in – commonly known as “scabs” – and managers.
Brooke began hearing complaints from residents about the landfill on Sunday April 25, the day after the state environmental management department says he heard about it first. He immediately began to watch aerial views of the river and its tributaries.
“I have a pretty good working knowledge of all the different major polluters so I was able to get back to that mine pretty quickly … which is the main thing going on there in this little area. near the town of Brookwood, ”he said. More precisely, he says, it is from the fourteenth impoundment of mine number seven, where workers pump all the mine waste sludge to the surface from 1,500 feet (457 meters) below the ground.
The Department of Environmental management stated in a statement to AL.com this is “pending laboratory analysis of the samples for the inspection report to be finalized ”and “has been in contact with Warrior Met regarding the landfill in question and will continue to actively investigate the circumstances in order to resolve the issue. “
Phil Smith, Director of Communications for United Mineworkers of America, of which the strikers are members, said he “hesitates to say” that the strike and rising pollution are linked.
“I don’t think we know the full details of what happened here yet, so it’s hard to point the finger and say what happened and who is responsible,” he said. . “But I know when the normal workforce works with that in mind, you don’t see that kind of thing happening. … These things don’t happen so much when the UMWA workforce is in these mines. “
Warrior encountered describes himself as “concerned about the environment and society”. The coal it extracts is all exported abroad to be used for steel production in Europe, South America, and in Asia. the the company was created by Wall Street investment firms and hedge funds at buy it the mines near Brookwood after their the former owner, Walter Energy, filed for bankruptcy in 2015. This takeover happened at the expense of the workers, who have lost their benefits, their retirement packages, and union contract when the new business took over.
Warrior encountered reported a loss of $ 35 million in 2020, compared to net income of $ 302 million in 2019. Responding to workers’ demands for better pay and benefits, he said due to uncertainties posed by the pandemic, he could not provide financial advice for the current year. Yet in recent weeks, the firm has given senior management bonuses of up to $ 35,000. And his hardly the only coal company that reported a loss during the pandemic.
“I think both the way the workers have been treated and the way the community has really been pushed aside here with the streams, one of the issues we see is that Wall Street values are being enforced. . rural, working class communities, ”Smith said. “These are the values of ‘money first’ and ‘the consequences don’t matter’.”
Although the state has two environmental regulatory agencies that are supposed to keep the mine under control, said Nelson he doesn’t really trust the Department of Environmental Management or the Alabama Surface Mining Commission.
“Often, we get accounts from the regulatory agency that everything is under control. They will say, “We have done our due diligence and found no problem,” and then we will go and do our investigation and we will find major problems, “he said.
This is what happened in 2019 when discharged wastewater of Tyson Foods has killed more than 175,000 fish in the Black Warrior River, and when the Hunt Oil Refinery had a major spill in 2013. This also happened with Walter Energy in 2011, when the company coal slurry polluted the North River and Lake Tuscaloosa in 2011. Walter Energy assured the public there was nothing to fear, and regulators said that although high levels of certain toxins were found, they would not affect drinking water.
“But we went out and sampled, and we found lead and arsenic above water quality standards in that water. So we were able to say that the state investigation is total and this water is very unsanitary, everyone should stay away, ”said Brooke.
Brooke said the lack of oversight that allows coal mines polluting with impunity also allows them to treat workers unfairly. With charcoal seeing a continuing decline in the United States, it also underscores the risks of what could happen without stronger government intervention to support workers and mine sites.
“The legislature, the governor, hasttorney gIn general, regulatory agencies all seem to have an economy first, profit first mentality, ”he said. “And when it comes to trying to solve the problems, they find it much easier to sweep the Alabamians concerns under the rug and do things for the benefit of business.”
Smith agreed the problems are intertwined, saying that while the ongoing strike is at the heart of the union’s concerns, pollution in the streams is not a second-rate problem.
“The struggle our members are going through there is not just about them and their work,” he said, noting that it was on the responsibility as a whole. If it turns out that Warrior Met is really responsible for the pollution, he said. “We want to make sure that they don’t feel like, and that other companies don’t feel, they can get away with anything.”