It's time to defend Black Warrior from industrial pollution

On Jan. 9, Americans were shocked by the news that crude 4-MCMH was released from Freedom Industries into the Elk River, upstream of the West Virginia American Water intake and distribution center. By now, other crises have diverted some media attention away from West Virginia. Some of my fellow students say it was an event that only affected the people in the nine counties and it has nothing to do with Tuscaloosa. I counter that the issues the spill highlights are very close to home.

Here in Tuscaloosa, our dear Black Warrior River is no stranger to industrial pollution. It is currently rated as the 7th most endangered river in the United States, according to the national group American Rivers. Many facilities line the banks of our river. Among these industries, coal is a major pollution contributor. There are approximately 95 active coal mines in the Black Warrior River watershed. Thankfully, Black Warrior Riverkeeper, a local nonprofit organization, works to ensure that these industries operating along the river are abiding by national and state laws.

One of Black Warrior Riverkeeper’s most prominent efforts is its opposition to the Shepherd Bend Mine proposed along the river’s Mulberry Fork. The University of Alabama owns most of the land and mineral rights at the proposed mine site. The 1,773-acre strip mine would discharge waste water at 29 outfalls, including one that is just 800 feet across the river from the Birmingham Water Works Board’s Mulberry Fork water intake. That facility provides tap water to 200,000 residents in the greater Birmingham area.

The BWWB has openly stated its opposition to the development of the mine, because sediment and metals discharged from the mine would lead to decreased water quality and, therefore, increased filtration fees for BWWB customers. The mining company already has the necessary permits from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management and the Alabama Surface Mining Commission. However, health and engineering experts urge residents not to rely on these agencies, because – to provide just one example – the mine’s permits would allow 10 times the level of iron and 40 times the level of manganese recommended by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

There may be other places appropriate for mining (after all, we need energy), but the land adjacent to a major municipal water supply is not the right place.

With the necessary permits in hand, the main thing standing in the way of the Shepherd Bend Mine now is the UA Board of Trustees’ decision on whether they will lease or sell their land and minerals for mining at Shepherd Bend. For several years, UA representatives have either refused to comment on the issue or have repeated the same evasive message: “The University has not been approached about leasing the land and has no current plans to lease or sell the land.”

Drummond Coal apparently thinks otherwise, or they may not have applied for the permits to mine an area predominantly controlled by the University. Another compounding issue is that Gary Neil Drummond is himself a trustee emeritus of the UA System.

The issue of industrial water pollution is very close to home. The Black Warrior cannot afford any more harmful chemicals and metals being added to its water. Numerous scientists, businesses, public health experts, environmental, religious and civil rights organizations, UA System students, alumni, employees and the Birmingham City Council have publicly proclaimed their opposition to this mine. It is time for the UA System to end this threat to the river, Birmingham’s water and our University’s good reputation. And it is time for students to raise their voices again. As students, we have a right to influence the decisions of those who run the universities.

Would you want your own school to be responsible for tainting the drinking water of 200,000 people? Of course not! But what can we do about it? As long as the public opinion remains outraged at the idea of the Shepherd Bend Mine, the UA System will feel encouraged to prevent this potential disaster. In order to make this happen, I encourage students, residents, faculty, researchers, small business owners and more to personally contact the UA trustees to tell them that this mine should never be established on this land.

Jennifer Davidson is a senior in New College.

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