A large crowd attended a public hearing held at the Community Health Systems Building in downtown Jasper on Tuesday regarding a petition filed by Black Warrior Riverkeeper in September.
The petition area is adjacent to a drinking water intake of the Birmingham Water Works Board that supplies water to 200,000 customers.
The ASMC and Alabama Department of Environmental Management have approved permits for two proposed strip mines near the intake in the past two years over the objections of Black Warrior Riverkeeper and the Birmingham Water Works Board.
The intent of the petition is to protect a major municipal source of drinking water from potential adverse effects associated with strip mining, according to Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke.
“Natural functioning forest ecosystems that are intact such as much of what we have in Alabama produce clean water through tributaries into the river,” Brooke told the ASMC. “When we impact them greatly by literally destroying that ecosystem and completely rebuilding it in an unnatural way, we are negatively affecting the influx of clean water into the system in a way that is going to harm our water supplies over time.”
Darryl Jones, assistant general manager of operations and technical services for the Birmingham Water Works Board, also spoke in support of the petition.
Jones said the water at the Mulberry Fork intake, which was built in the 1980s and came online in 1989, has been problematic to the board over the years and sometimes results in the facility having to be shut down.
Jones added that the contaminants levels allowed to be discharged under mining permits are greater than what can be treated with conventional processes.
“We’re aware that mining has been happening in that region for a lot of years, but it was not right next door until the last several years,” Jones said. “Thirty years ago, we were not aware that mining would come this close. Our expectation was that the regulatory agency would look at their own guidelines and procedures and protect the source water.”
Jones also stated in his remarks that the board does not have data to prove that the challenges with the drinking water at the Mulberry Fork intake are a direct result of mining.
“But we do know that if you protect any particular contamination from getting into the river system, it improves our opportunity to provide safe drinking water,” Jones said.
ASMC director Randall Johnson questioned Jones further about the water problems that have occurred at the intake in the years since surface mines have been in operation in the area.
Specifically, Johnson asked if the board has ever had a violation of primary drinking water standards from water supplied from its western filter plant.
Jones answered that he was not aware of one. He added that when a problem occurs, the treatment plant is able to switch to a secondary source in order to prevent discharging water that exceeds federal guidelines.
C.W. McGehee of Jasper-based McGehee Engineering Corporation also presented the ASMC with his firm’s evaluation of in-stream water quality data taken between March 2011 and June 2013.
McGehee said 2,683 separate samples were used, representing 225 stations approved or designated by the ASMC and located either upstream or downstream of coal mining operations.
The results reflected a 99.58 percent compliance rate to the drinking water standards set out by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to McGehee.
“McGhee Engineering believes that the representative sampling data definitively establishes that the coal mining activities in these designated water sheds as well as other coal-bearing water sheds are not having an adverse effect on in-stream drinking water standards,” McGehee said.
Johnson noted that the data submitted to the ASMC did not bear McGehee’s professional engineer stamp. McGehee said he would be willing to provide it to vouch for the data.
Nearly a dozen people spoke during the hearing. The ASMC has 60 days to render a decision.