A Shelby County coal mine has been shut down after state investigators found it had been pouring coal slurry into a tributary of the Cahaba River intermittently for as long as a decade.
“It’s located in a very remote area, and it’s not something you would find very easily,” said Randall Johnson, director of the Alabama Surface Mining Commission.
State regulators say Tacoa Minerals, which has operated the mine for about two years, has agreed to pay a $55,000 environmental fine and clean the site. It faces further sanctions from the agency that regulates surface mines.
A deer hunter near Gurnee in November spotted black water entering Piney Woods Creek from an unnamed tributary. Piney Woods Creek later enters the Cahaba.
The hunter climbed through rough terrain until he found the source. What he discovered was eight or 10 years of coal waste piled up over about half an acre, state officials said. He told the Cahaba River Society, which notified the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. Their inspectors followed his tracks the following month and also found discolored water coming from the site.
The environmental agency and Tacoa have agreed in a consent agreement to a fine of $55,000, according to records on file with the state. In addition, the company must clean up the contaminated soil and other wastes.
Water quality tests are not complete yet, an ADEM spokesman said.
The Surface Mining Commission plans additional fines of up to $5,000 per incident, Johnson said. It’s not yet clear how many separate incidents are involved.
An agent at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said he could not respond to questions about whether the case had been referred for criminal investigation. The federal agency would only pursue criminal charges if the company knew about the pollution.
The area was so remote that it’s possible that Tacoa and past owners of the mining operation were unaware of the spills, Johnson said.
“It’s not something you would find very easily,” he said. “Even though we inspect once a month, the location of the spill area was so remote that it was something we would not find ordinarily. Neither would anyone else.”
Tacoa has been operating the underground coal mine and coal preparation plant for about two years, officials said. “It’s where they clean the coal and wash it before they ship it to a user,” said Johnson.
Tacoa had been permitted to dispose of its slurry, a thick wastewater contaminated with coal waste, underground in an abandoned mine. On at least two occasions, Tacoa’s underground well became clogged and probably erupted into the remote spot, Johnson said.
Tacoa is listed with the Alabama Secretary of State’s office as a Birmingham company. However, state agencies have in their Tacoa files no physical address and only a disconnected Birmingham phone number.
ADEM also has a West Virginia cell phone number for company incorporator Jerry Whitt. Whitt earlier this week said he was meeting with lawyers and could not talk. He did not return the call.
It’s unclear who is responsible for the past spills, although leaf falls and other evidence make it clear the waste has lain on the ground of the forest eight or 10 years, Johnson said. Tacoa agreed to properly clean up the waste.
When the state first found the pile of waste, Tacoa went out without permission to clean it up and made the problem worse, Johnson said. Now they have hired an engineering firm to plan the cleanup.