It's been over a month since miners at Brookwood's Warrior Met Coal went on strike after contract negotiations with the company broke down.

As the strike continues, Warrior Met is in a different kind of hot water, after both local and state agencies received reports of black sludge polluting both Texas Creek and Davis Creek, which both flow directly into the Black Warrior River, at sites near their coal mining operations in Brookwood.

"Warrior Met Coal is indeed the source of the black wastewater," said Nelson Brooke, a member of the Black Warrior Riverkeeper Waterkeeper Alliance. "We've received numerous complaints from locals, who are all upset about the condition of their beloved creeks."

Although the full story isn't clear yet, Brooke said he believes the mine is discharging millions of gallons of wastewater per day into the small creeks.

Specifically, Brooke said the black, polluted wastewater and coal tailings are coming from the No. 7 mine's Slurry Impoundment No. 14, where mine workers pump slurry to the surface from 1,500 feet underground.

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The Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Alabama Surface Mining Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center have all been contacted about the pollution.

(Photo Courtesy of Black Warrior Riverkeeper)
(Photo Courtesy of Black Warrior Riverkeeper)

Brooke told The Thread that the Black Warrior Riverkeeper was first alerted to the pollution in late April. After an initial aerial sweep and a patrol, he was able to confirm the source of pollution. He said that although Warrior Met has a permit to discharge polluted water into Texas Creek, they are supposed to carefully limit pollutants in that discharge.

The Riverkeeper said fouling downstream creeks with black water, oil sheen and black sediment deposits are violations of both that permit and the Clean Water Act.

As of Wednesday, BWR has not received any reports of any fish killed or other sick wildlife. However, Brooke doesn't believe that means there's no danger to anyone exposed to the slurry.

"The conductivity is really high, which is not good for macroinvertebrates," Brooke said. "The amount of e. coli bacteria in Texas Creek is unsafe for human contact."

Now, a representative for the striking miners said the pollution would not be happening if conditions at Warrior Met and problems with their contracts had not forced the workers there to strike.

(Photo Courtesy of Black Warrior Riverkeeper)
(Photo Courtesy of Black Warrior Riverkeeper)

On April 1, over 1,000 miners at Warrior Met began a strike over labor practices they believe are unfair including low salary, bad health insurance plans, excessive hours and a lack of paid holidays. They all belong to the United Mine Workers of America District 20, which has been a strong supporter of the workers as they negotiate for better contracts.

A week after the strike began, Warrior Met attempted to reach an agreement with the miners to end the strike, but the union members voted down the proposed contract and the strike continued.

Since then, Warrior Met Coal has hired temporary, non-union workers and managers known as scabs to work the mines. Phil Smith, the Communications Director for UMWA, said he believes the pollution of the creeks and the hiring of scabs may be connected, but couldn't say so definitively.

"A discharge of this magnitude has never occurred when Union miners were at work in that mine," Smith said.

Brooke said locals have told him this pollution has been going on since late February and early March.

(Photo Courtesy of Black Warrior Riverkeeper)
(Photo Courtesy of Black Warrior Riverkeeper)

According to a report from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, Warrior Met is not currently operating at the Brookwood site, and Smith told the Thread that the discharge has ended for now.

Turbidity curtains are also being installed in Texas Creek, which flows into Davis Creek, as a step towards cleaning the water, although they won't be fully clean until the creeks are dredged.

As for the next step, Brooke and the Riverkeeper organization want to see to it that both ADEM and the ASMC issue a cease and desist to Warrior Met to ensure no more discharge is released until proper pollution control policies are instated.

According to a remediation plan from Warrior Met Coal, water monitoring stations will be implemented immediately and will be in use for the next 90 days.

Brooke, though, said steps taken against Warrior Met and other polluters just aren't enough to disincentivize them from cutting corners and damaging the environment in the future.

"Without stiff penalty, there's no true deterrence against future inattention to key details and further permit violations. It is clearly apparent that this state lacks the political will to hold polluters accountable to the law," Brooke said. "Without a massive shift in political calculus and priorities, these types of events will continue to happen across Alabama, putting Alabamians and their health and water resources in harm's way."

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