It’s sunny and in the mid-70s in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama right now. Normally, that would be prime conditions for a swim in Davis Creek or Texas Creek. But right now, both are running black, full of thick wastewater runoff.
The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has been receiving complaints about the pollution in the water bodies and is currently investigating the cause of it. The Alabama Surface Mining Commission has sent environmental regulators to check it out, too. But Nelson Brooke—the riverkeeper for the Black Warrior River, which both creeks flow into—has done his own investigation, and is sure he knows where the pollution is coming from.
“It’s 100% coming from Warrior Met Coal’s number seven underground mine,” Brooke, who works for the local chapter of the Waterkeeper Alliance, said.
Since April 1, 1,100 workers at the Warrior Met coal mine, all members of the United Mineworkers District 20, have been on strike over alleged unfair labor practices, demanding better pay, more reasonable hours, and more time off. That means the only people working at the number seven mine are temporary, non-union workers who the company brought in—commonly called “scabs”—and managers.
Brooke started hearing complaints from locals about the discharge on Sunday, April 25, the day after the state’s environmental management department says it first got word about it. He immediately started looking at aerial views of the river and its tributaries.
“I’ve got a pretty good working knowledge of all the different major polluters out there, so I was pretty quickly able backtrack it to that mine ... which is the main thing going on out there in that little area near the town of Brookwood,” he said. Specifically, he said, it’s coming from the number seven mine’s fourteenth impoundment, where workers pump all of the mining waste slurry up to the surface from 1,500 feet (457 meters) below the ground.
The Department of Environmental Management said in a statement to AL.com it is “awaiting the laboratory analysis of the samples for the inspection report to be finalized” and that it “has been in contact with Warrior Met about the discharge in question and will continue to actively investigate the circumstances in order to resolve the issue.”
Phil Smith, communications director for the United Mineworkers of America, of which the striking workers are members, said he “hesitates to say” that the strike and the uptick in pollution are related.
“I don’t think we know the details of what happened here yet completely yet, so it’s kind of hard to point a finger and say just what happened and who’s responsible,” he said. “But I do know that when the normal workforce is working in that mind you don’t see these sorts of things happening. ... These things don’t happen so much when the UMWA workforce is in these mines.”
Warrior Met describes itself as “environmentally and socially minded.” The coal it mines is all exported abroad to be used for steel production in Europe, South America, and Asia. The company was created by Wall Street investment firms and hedge funds to buy the mines near Brookwood after their previous owner, Walter Energy, filed for bankruptcy in 2015. This buy-up happened on the backs of workers, who lost their benefits, retirement packages, and union contract when the new firm took over.
Warrior Met reported a loss of $35 million in 2020, compared with a net income of $302 million in 2019. In response to workers’ demands for better pay and benefits, it has said that due to the uncertainties posed by the pandemic, it cannot provide financial guidance for the current year. Yet in recent weeks, the firm has given upper management bonuses of up to $35,000. And it’s hardly the only coal company that reported a loss during the pandemic.
“I think both with the how the workers have been treated and how the community has really been kicked aside here with the creeks, one of the problems we’re seeing is Wall Street values being applied to rural, working class communities,” said Smith. “That’s the values of ‘money first,’ and ‘consequences don’t matter.’”
Though the state has two environmental regulating agencies that are meant to keep the mine in check, Nelson said he doesn’t have much faith in either the Department of Environmental Management or the Alabama Surface Mining Commission.
“Oftentimes, we get narratives from the regulatory agency that everything’s under control. They’ll say, ‘we’ve done our due diligence and we didn’t find any problems,’ and then we’ll go out and do our investigation and we’ll find major problems,” he said.
That’s what happened in 2019 when spilled wastewater from Tyson Foods killed more than 175,000 fish in the Black Warrior River, and when the Hunt Oil Refinery had a major spill in 2013. It also happened with Walter Energy in 2011, when the company’s coal slurry polluted the North River and Lake Tuscaloosa in 2011. Walter Energy assured the public there was nothing to worry about, and regulators said that though elevated levels of some toxins were found, they wouldn’t affect drinking water.
“But we went out and sampled, and we found elevated lead and arsenic above water quality standards in that water. So we were able to say, the state’s investigation is total BS, and this water is very unsafe, everybody needs to be staying away,” said Brooke.
Brooke said that the lack of oversight that allows coal mines to pollute with impunity also allows them to treat workers unjustly. With coal seeing a continued decline in the U.S., it also points to the risks of what could happen without stronger government intervention to support workers and mining sites.
“The legislature, the governor, the attorney general, the regulatory agencies, they all seem to have economy-first, profit-first kind of mentalities,” he said. “And when it comes to trying to do something about problems, it seems to be much easier for them to sweep the concerns of Alabamians under the rug and do things for the benefit of corporations.”
Smith agreed that the issues are connected, saying that though the ongoing strike is at the top of the union’s mind, the pollution in the creeks isn’t a second-order issue.
“The struggle that our members are going through there isn’t just about them and their jobs,” he said, noting it’s about accountability as a whole. If it turns out Warrior Met is truly responsible for the pollution, he said “we want to make sure they don’t feel like, and other companies don’t feel like, they can get away with anything.”