Coal firm Alpha gets largest ever water fine

The Obama administration announced Wednesday that a Virginia-based coal company will pay the largest ever fine for excessive water pollution.

Alpha Natural Resources Inc., the nation's third-largest coal supplier, has agreed to pay $27.5 million in fines and spend an estimated $200 million to install wastewater treatment systems to prevent future violations.

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The Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced Wednesday that the deal would settle water pollution charges against the company in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.

"The unprecedented size of the civil penalty in this settlement sends a strong deterrent message to others in this industry that such egregious violations of the nation's Clean Water Act will not be tolerated," Robert Dreher, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement.

"Today's agreement is good news for communities across Appalachia, who have too often been vulnerable to polluters who disregard the law," he added. "It holds Alpha accountable and will bring increased compliance and transparency among Alpha and its many subsidiaries."

The government accused Alpha of "routinely" violating water pollution limits and, in some cases, discharging pollutants into the water without a permit.

According to the EPA, Alpha committed more than 6,000 violations between 2006 and 2013. In many cases, Alpha received government permits to discharge a limited amount of pollutants into rivers, streams and other bodies of water, but it would often go beyond those limits, the government said.

The violations occurred at 794 different locations throughout coal country, the government said. The pollutants included iron, pH, total suspended solids, aluminum, manganese and selenium.

The federal government will share the $27.5 million settlement money with three states. West Virginia will receive $8.9 million, Pennsylvania will get $4.1 million, and Kentucky will get $687,500.

Alpha will also spend about $200 million toward installing and operating wastewater treatment systems and making other system-wide upgrades to reduce pollution discharges in all five of the Appalachian states involved in the settlement.