Environmentalists Threaten Legal Action Against Coal Company for Potomac River Pollution

The shuttered Verso Paper Co. mill in Luke, Md., was powered by a coal plant in West Virginia. Environmentalists say the coal plant is responsible for polluting the Potomac River. Photo by Josh Kurtz

Clean water advocates are planning to sue a West Virginia coal company for pollution in the Potomac River.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network, Environmental Integrity Project and Appalachian Mountains Advocate sent a joint letter of intent to sue to D&L Coal Company, Inc. on Thursday, claiming that the coal facility has been allowing stormwater runoff contaminated with coal waste to flow into the North Branch of the Potomac River.

“Contaminated stormwater from this coal site has been polluting the Potomac River for too long, threatening the ecology of the nation’s river and the health of the many people who love to fish and paddle in the river,” Brent Walls, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, said in a statement.

D&L Coal is a coal storage and loading facility in West Virginia, which had supplied coal to Luke Paper Mill in Maryland until it shut down in June 2019, according to the notice. Last year, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) took legal action against the owner of Luke Paper Mill for leaking black liquor, a byproduct of paper production, into the river.

Now the coal company is no longer operating.

The environmental groups claim that the coal facility has not been properly measuring its discharge of coal residue, which is in violation of its West Virginia National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Permit (NPDES) and the federal Clean Water Act.

The West Virginia NPDES permit requires coal facilities to take samples and measurements of discharge from its outlets. Since D&L Coal’s outlets only flow when it rains, samples must be taken during rainfall. The permit also requires D&L Coal to report additional data on rainfall so West Virginia environmental regulators were able to check if the coal industry monitored its outlets when it was supposed to.

D&L Coal failed to follow through with any of these obligations, according to the letter.

The coal company reported that it did not allow any pollution into the Potomac River, but the Potomac RiverKeeper Network’s own investigation suggested otherwise.

While gathering information for a lawsuit involving the Luke Paper Mill on Feb. 6, the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper noticed that coal residue coming from D&L Coal was running into the river.

The Riverkeeper returned to the facility after it rained on March 25 and found contaminated water flowing downhill, alongside a path that had coal residue, and pooling at the banks of the river. After it rained on June 17, the Riverkeeper photographed coal contaminated stormwater coming out of the facility and flowing into the river. The photos are included in the letter.

“Reporting violations like these are important because without accurate information from companies, state agencies are blind to pollution in our waterways and can’t do their job,” Natalia Cabrera, attorney for the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a statement.

The environmental groups plan to move forward with the lawsuit if they do not reach a settlement agreement with D&L Coal within 60 days of the notice. 

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Elizabeth Shwe
Shwe covered California state politics during her internship at The Sacramento Bee. She is a 2020 graduate of Princeton University with a degree in political science. At Princeton she was a producer for WPRB 103.3 FM News & Culture section, the station’s only long form podcast-type program. Shwe also wrote for The Daily Princetonian, and tutored with the Petey Greene Program, which offers free tutoring to incarcerated people. Shwe is a Report for America corps member.