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Mining Company Admits to Criminal Negligence - Special Restitution Project Will Help Improve Water Quality to St. Charles, Va.

Release Date: 11/1/1999
Contact Information: Bonnie Smith, (215) 814-5543

BIG STONE GAP, Va. - A federal judge today accepted the guilty plea of Lone Mountain Processing, Inc., to negligently polluting local waterways in 1996 and sentenced the company to pay a total of $1.6 million in fines and restitution.

The United States and the company had negotiated the sentence in a plea agreement. The Court accepted Lone Mountain’s guilty plea today to violating its Clean Water Act permit and proceeded immediately to sentencing. The $1.5 million in restitution will be used by local authorities to install and upgrade wastewater treatment and water supply services in the St. Charles area of Lee County. In addition, the company will pay a $85,000 criminal fine.

"Today’s criminal sentence, following the state’s civil settlement shows that we take protecting human health and our waterways seriously. Mining in Appalachia has severely challenged its ecological balance and water quality. And Virginia’s residents rightfully demand that we fairly and vigorously enforce the laws protecting them," said EPA Regional Administrator W. Michael McCabe.

Lone Mountain admitted to negligently discharging wastewater with excessive total suspended solids from its coal preparation plant on two occasions. The company’s CWA permit limited the concentration of such material which could be discharged to protect the environment.

On August 9, 1996, 2.6 million gallons of contaminated water flowed out of Lone Mountain’s slurry impoundment, through an abandoned mine, and into Gin Creek. Following this spill, Virginia officials ordered Lone Mountain to stop operating and repair the impoundment to prevent future discharges of contaminated water. The slurry impoundment in Pennington Gap in Lee County is six-miles across with mountains as walls on three sides connected by a large man-made barrier enclosing mining wastewater 70 feet deep. Thousands of gallons of water used daily in the coal washing process is pumped into the slurry impoundment where waste materials are allowed to settle out - which include coal fines and clay particles. The clear water is taken from the top, returned to the plant and reused.

In late September and early October, 1996, a Lone Mountain employee allegedly discovered leaks in the impoundment; however these leaks were not fixed or reported to the appropriate state agency - Virginia Division of Mined Land Reclamation.

The second mine spill occurred on October 24, 1996. Contaminated water leaked from the huge coal slurry impoundment at approximately 3,000 gallons a minute. The contaminated water - - containing suspended solids, iron, and manganese - - flowed approximately 11 miles through Gin Creek, Straight Creek, and into the North Fork of the Powell River, polluting a total of 50 miles of stream.

Many of the residents in Lee County rely on surface water from the Powell River for their everyday use. The spill continued for nine days and caused contaminated water to flow through a critical habitat of two federally threatened fish species and nine species of endangered mussels. Over 11, 000 fish were killed, most by suffocation.

The community identified upgrading and expanding water and sewage service as their top priority. Although these funds will not be able to underwrite the project in its entirety, they will help make significant improvements. Many of the residents in Lee County do not have complete plumbing facilities -- which means hot and cold piped water, a flush toilet, and a bathtub or shower within the home. These water quality projects will help to improve the quality of life in St. Charles.

The $1.5 million in restitution from today’s the criminal settlement will be added to $1.4 million for St. Charles water projects which came from a related civil settlement between Lone Mountain and Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The funds will be managed by the Lenowisco Planning District Commission.

Today’s sentencing brings to a close a three-year multi-agency investigation. The prosecution team included attorneys from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Abingdon and EPA’s regional office in Philadelphia, and investigators from EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Division.