Controversial Coal Mine at Dovertown Wins 5-Year Permit Renewal, Can’t Use Brownfield Portion Without Pollution Plan

The BWWB’s water Intake site on the Mulberry Fork, looking upriver toward the proposed Mays Mine No. 5. (Source: Black Warrior Riverkeeper)

The Alabama Surface Mining Commission issued a permit renewal last week for Mays Mining Company’s Mine No. 5 on the Mulberry Fork. But the company has to meet multiple court-ordered and other conditions before beginning to operate at the site near the Dovertown community.

Gary Hosmer, a Dovertown resident who has led the 14 year-long local opposition to mining in the 200-resident Walker County community, said, “We’re going to fight it as far as we can, and then some.”

The mine site is about five miles upstream of a major intake pipe that supplies the Birmingham Water Works Board and serves 200,000 customers. The water works has said the mining is a threat to the area’s drinking water quality. The utility went to Jefferson County Circuit Court to stop the mine from operating on the Black Warrior tributary, and officials said in a statement, “We are reviewing the (commission’s) decision and evaluating the BWWB’s options.”

Part of the 506-acre property owned by Mays Mining is a polluted “brownfield,” once used to manufacture plywood. Formaldehyde, phenols and other chemical residue from that manufacturer still riddle the soil there. In November, in an action brought by the water works, Circuit Judge Jim Hughey blocked any mining on the 16.5-acre brownfield and told the surface mining commission that a permit renewal would require a plan be submitted to deal with the pollution.

In response, the commission’s renewal is conditional on Mays Mining filing a Special Overburden Handling Plan as part of a permit-revision application. The plan would have to meet specific standards and fully assess the brownfield for the presence of pollutants to “contain, mitigate, or dispose of any … residue encountered … to the extent necessary to protect the health and safety of the public, including the rights of present water users.”

The permit revision would be subject to public notice and comment. Potentially, if there is enough interest in the matter, a public hearing would be held, according to commission attorney Milton McGregor.

In addition to conditions laid down by the court and the commission, Mays also would be required to receive a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for discharging into a navigable waterway under the federal Clean Water Act. McGregor said, “(Mays) couldn’t legally mine without a corps permit or a letter of jurisdictional determination saying that no permit is required.”

Rodney Mays, owner of the mining company, did not return email and telephone attempts to reach him to ask for a timeline on meeting the conditions imposed on the permit’s renewal.

The Black Warrior Riverkeeper organization also has long been on the forefront in opposing any mining at the property as well as elsewhere on the river system.

Nelson Brooke, who regularly monitors the river, said, “We won’t be happy with any permit for a coal mine that close upstream of the drinking water intake. From what I’ve seen over the years, (mining) will be a guarantee that pollution will be allowed to enter the river from a strip mine.”

Mining permits, Brooke said, “are just too weak, so it doesn’t really matter what the surface mining commission tries to do to put a Band-Aid on this mistake. Even if there’s some sort of plan put in place that calls for the segregation of contaminated sediment, there’s still too much opportunity for comingling of stormwater runoff when it starts raining. The sediment ponds are just not sufficient to contain everything coming off the site and water will be discharged into the river, even if they avoid the plywood area.”

He said he believes that once the earth is opened up to remove coal, a wastewater treatment plan would be needed to prevent pollution from reaching the Mulberry Fork even if the mining were outside the perimeter of the old plywood plant.

The Riverkeeper plans to submit comments on the overburden handling plan, Brooke said.