A Washington, D.C.-based environmental group has named the Black Warrior River as the seventh most endangered river in the United States because of the possibility of strip mining near its banks.
The organization, American Rivers, also reported that drinking water for Birmingham and Jefferson County is threatened by the proposed strip coal mine at Shepherd Bend on the Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork in Walker County on land now owned by the University of Alabama.
The 1,773-acre Shepherd Bend Mine would discharge wastewater at 29 points, including one that is 800 feet across the river from a Birmingham Water Works Board drinking water intake facility for 200,000 people, according to Charles Scribner, executive director of Black Warrior Riverkeeper, which monitors the quality of the water in the river.
“We think the proposed Shepherd Bend Mine is a major threat to the river, Birmingham-area drinking water, and the University of Alabama System’s reputation,” Scribner said. “The University of Alabama is being watched closely here and we want UA System leaders to oppose any current or future mining proposals at such an inappropriate location.
“In 2007, the UA system publicly requested proposals for purchase of their land and mineral rights at Shepherd Bend. They did not receive any proposals, but Shepherd Bend, LLC, a company owned by Garry Neil Drummond, a trustee emeritus of the UA system, began applying for mining permits at Shepherd Bend. The proposed mine area primarily includes UA-owned land and minerals,” Scribner said.
But Kellee Reinhart, the spokeswoman for the UA System Board of Trustees, which would have to sign off on any sale, said the proposal is not currently under active consideration after protests were mounted against it.
“Nothing has been submitted to the Board regarding Shepherd Bend, and neither the Board nor the Chancellor has released any statements in the past, and there are no plans to do so,” said Reinhart, who pointed out that the board met on the University of Alabama in Huntsville last week and there was no mention of Shepherd Bend.
“I have been a constant point of contact with the Riverkeepers, have met with their leadership on numerous occasions, received and conveyed petitions, letters and other materials, and I don’t think they are doing themselves any favors by bringing up the issue again,” she said.
But the American Rivers organization disagrees.
“The America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a call to action to save rivers that are facing a critical tipping point,” said Rebecca Haynes of American Rivers. “We all need healthy rivers.
”They provide our drinking water, support the economies of our communities and promote public health and quality of life,” she said in a statement released by American Rivers. “We hope citizens will take action to ensure a healthy Black Warrior River for generations to come.”
Scribner said that if the proposal for the coal mine resurfaces, mine discharges would introduce toxic pollutants and sediment into the drinking water source, elevating health risks.
“It would also increase water treatment costs for families and businesses in the greater Birmingham area,” he said. “American Rivers and its partners call on the University of Alabama System trustees to prevent the lease or sale of UA’s land and mineral rights to Shepherd Bend.
Cathy Andreen, UA’s director of media relations, said the whole Shepherd’s Bend issue is overblown after the Alabama Department of Environmental Management issued a wastewater discharge permit to Shepherd Bend, LLC last year.
She said Drummond’s company has not even asked to buy or lease the land or mineral rights.
“The University of Alabama has not been approached about selling or leasing the land, and has no current plans to sell or lease the land,” Andreen said in a statement last week.
A large coalition of businesses, organizations, students, scientists, drinking water consumers and other concerned citizens have urged the trustees to take a strong stance against the mine, helping ensure that this water source is protected.
“Students throughout the UA System and the state of Alabama oppose the construction of the Shepherd Bend Mine,” said Caitlin McClusky, statewide co-coordinator for the Coalition of Alabama Students for the Environment in the statement issued by the American Rivers organization. “We believe the UA System has a responsibility to prioritize the protection of the public health of Alabama citizens over short-term profit.”
Tuscaloosa accountant Randy Palmer grew up as the son of a coal miner in Walker County, but is strongly opposed to the Shepherd Bend proposal.
“Like many of the families in Cordova, my dad raised four boys on a coal miner’s wage, and I appreciate that,” Palmer, a member of the Citizens Opposed to Strip Mining on the Black Warrior River, said.
“Mining this riverfront would destroy that economic opportunity, not to mention quality of life,” Palmer said. “A strip mine of the size they are talking about would isolate a lot of small towns.
“Mills close down when strip mines are built and towns go into decline. I saw that happen in Cordova.”
Palmer said “it’s a no-brainer” to oppose the proposed strip mine because it would only provide around 110 jobs, which would be gone once the coal is mined.
The Black Warrior River flows through a 6,276 square mile basin, providing drinking water to many of the watershed’s one million residents, according to American Rivers.
The Black Warrior and its headwater streams, one of which carries a national Wild and Scenic River designation, are home to a great diversity of wildlife including 127 species of fish and 36 species of mussels, said American Rivers’ Haynes.
Scribner said the river is in “fairly good shape right now,” but warrants being included in the list of most endangered because of the possibility that the mine might be built.
The annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report is a list of rivers at a crossroads, where key decisions in the coming months will determine the rivers’ fates, according to Haynes.
Over the years, the report has helped spur many successes including the removal of outdated dams, the protection of rivers with wild and scenic designations and the prevention of harmful development and pollution, Haynes said.
American Rivers is one of the leading organizations working to protect and restore the nation’s rivers and streams, she said.
The organization was founded in 1973 and claims to have helped protect and restore more than 150,000 miles of rivers through advocacy efforts, on-the-ground projects and the annual release of America’s Most Endangered Rivers.
Post updated at noon on Thursday, April 18 to include additional statements from Cathy Andreen and Charles Scribner.