By Bob Fowler, Knoxville News Sentinel
BRICEVILLE, Tenn. - A coal company is being fined for illegally dumping more than a million gallons of "black water" into a river that's home to a fish and a plant on the federal list of threatened species.
The fines from the state's Department of Environment and Conservation could total $196,000 unless Premium Coal Inc. begins quickly taking steps to upgrade its coal-washing operations in the remote Devonia community.
The company must pay a base civil penalty of $50,000, according to TDEC's order.
Premium officials could not be reached. Local phone numbers for Premium Coal and the Baldwin Coal Preparation Plant have been disconnected.
The company didn't report the discharge of coal slurry into the New River in Anderson County in early January, and officials only learned of the mishap from citizen complaints, state officials said.
The discharge coated rocks and plants for several miles downstream and significantly boosted the amount of iron and suspended solids in the river for several weeks.
Rains and settlement pushed an impoundment pond level up, and for 12 hours, more than a million gallons of "untreated water and coal waste material" gushed into the New River, according to the state.
The New River is considered "Exceptional Tennessee Waters" because it's home to the threatened Ashy Darter and the Cumberland Rosemary, according to the state order.
"This is not a common occurrence," said Jonathon Burr, with the mining section of the state's Water Pollution Control Division. "A large accidental release of that volume is incredibly rare."
A discharge pipe for a large impoundment pond where coal slurry settles out was set too low, Burr said.
The rainfall was "a factor but not an excuse," Burr said. A new discharge pipe was in the process of being placed, but the company "did a poor job of managing that transition," Burr said.
"The most disturbing part about this was not calling in immediately and reporting it to us," he said.
J.W. Randolph of the nonprofit environmental group Appalachian Voices praised TDEC for the fine.
"Too often, these events go unnoticed and unpunished," he said. "We're very glad to see the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation take some action against Premium.
"How do you put a price on 28 miles of the New River or the water quality impacts that the people downstream will see?" Randolph said.
Premium Coal Co. is owned by James Justice Jr., said Dawn Coppock, legislative director of a group called LEAF that focuses on mountaintop removal coal-mining. Justice has "an impressive list of permit violations, and the state is still granting him permits," she said.
"The Devonia spill is entirely consistent with his (Justice's) record of permit violations,'' Coppock said.
Federal authorities shut down the coal-washing operation soon after the black water release was detected but allowed the company to resume operations in early February.