Coal company fines total $245,000 in environmental cases in Bell, Pike counties

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2014 

Federal regulators have proposed fines totaling $245,000 against two companies accused of violating environmental rules in Eastern Kentucky.

One case involves a Bell County company that allegedly buried stream areas without a permit at a surface coal mine.

The other is against a coal-preparation plant in Pike County cited for illegally discharging contaminants into a creek.

The state also cited alleged environmental violations at that plant, said Jeff Cummins, director of the Division of Enforcement at the state Department for Environmental Protection.

The federal enforcement action and the state's case were independent of each other, Cummins said.

In the Bell County case, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alleged that Middlesboro-based Apollo Fuels improperly put rock and dirt into two tributaries of the Clear Fork of the Cumberland River while building a hollow fill and two sediment ponds at a surface mine in the southern part of the county in 2009.

Coal companies are required to reclaim hillsides in Eastern Kentucky after blasting them apart to uncover coal, but the material swells, so it can't all go back on the original spot.

The companies put excess rock and dirt in nearby hollows, creating fills. That often buries stream sections, which has added to controversy over mountaintop mining in Appalachia.

The law allows mining companies to put fill material in stream areas, but regulators must review the request to do so and must issue a permit.

The EPA alleged that Apollo Fuels filled 1,195 linear feet of stream area without a permit.

The company contends that it did have a permit for its reclamation activities and that it was surprised that the EPA disagreed with its actions, said Ethan Ware, an attorney from South Carolina who represents the company.

Apollo Fuels did not admit or deny the EPA's allegations, but it agreed to pay a penalty of $135,000, according to the settlement.

"They stepped forward and were willing to put it behind them," Ware said of the company.

The case in Pike County involves a preparation plant at Millard that was operated by a company called Coal Operator 1 LLC.

Prep plants are used to wash coal.

The plant, once known as the Viking plant, is now called the Coal Essence plant. Federal records list NewLead Holdings Ltd. as the current controller of the plant, which has been in operation since at least the mid-1970s.

The EPA cited several alleged violations at the plant after inspecting it in May and July 2012.

Regulators charged that the plant had an unpermitted drainage point into Hopkins Creek; that it did not report some information on water-monitoring reports; that berms required to control runoff were eroded; that the company hadn't properly controlled coal dust and coal waste that could be washed into the creek; and that it had discharged higher levels of manganese, iron and other contaminants than allowed.

EPA inspectors saw dark-brown and black stormwater runoff from the plant flowing into Hopkins Creek on one visit, according to the settlement agreement.

The agreement stated that the plant operator has since put a better management plan in place and has submitted photos and information that indicate that it has made changes designed to protect the stream.

The company did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement but agreed to pay a $110,000 penalty.

Cummins said Kentucky inspectors cited the plant operator over a separate alleged instance of fouling the creek with black water in April 2013.

That notice of violation is pending, he said.

The period for people to submit comments on the two proposed settlements with EPA is open. For information or to submit a comment, go to EPA.gov/region4/water/wpeb/npdes_states.html, and click on Kentucky.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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