Opponents of a proposed coal strip mine at Shepherd Bend on the Black Warrior River near Cordova, Ala., are heartened by what they see as a media and public relations tide that may be turning in their favor as the mine gets more scrutiny.
“We continue to have widespread momentum,” said Charles Scribner of eco-group Black Warrior Riverkeeper, in a March 6 email to opponents of the mine, which would be located only about 800 feet from a Birmingham Water Works Board (BWWB) drinking intake.
Perhaps most important, opponents – including students, environmentalists, social-justice groups like the NAACP and area residents who would be affected by the mine – have found what they hope will be a winning strategy: pressure the University of Alabama (UA), including UA System trustees.
The University owns most of the land and mineral rights at the site, which Shepherd Bend Mine, LLC, wants to develop. If the university refuses to allow the land to be used for mining, the project will likely not be financially viable.
In the letter, Scribner cited several recent PR victories, all focused on pressuring the university, including long-time president Robert E. Witt, who was recently named chancellor of the UA system:
In January, two Birmingham craft brewers, Good People Brewing Company and Avondale Brewing Company – citing their need for clean, fresh water to use in their products – sent letters opposing the mine to Witt.
And a petition against the mine at change.org now has more than 7,000 signatures.
In the letter, Scribner urges mine opponents to continue to call or email Witt about Shepherd Bend, as well as UA Interim President Judy Bonner. This is true at least in part because Witt has said “some encouraging things” about Shepherd Bend, Scribner told Weld Local in a phone interview March 9.
One example, Scribner says, was Witt’s response – in a letter in Sept. 2011 – to the Rev. Anthony Johnson of the Birmingham NAACP and other groups who had asked him to address their concerns about the proposed strip mine.
Witt, while stressing that there were no plans to lease or sell the land, said that if anything changed, he would contact the NAACP and “other interested parties” for a meeting “in advance of any final decision.”
Overall, Scribner said that he is pleased by the “progression of interest” among those opposing the mine, including citizens, community groups and others.
“It’s difficult to see what the outcome may be because the UA is so tight-lipped, but I’m glad that word is getting out about where Birmingham’s drinking water comes from, and it’s a teachable moment in that sense,” he said. “The bottom line is that we will never be satisfied until the University of Alabama comes out and says they will never sell or lease their land for mining at Shepherd Bend.”
Long-time mine opponent Randy Palmer, a Cordova native and a financial advisor in Tuscaloosa, is pleased to see Shepherd Bend finally catch on with the media and others. “People are interested in this story,” he said, when we spoke after a meeting of mine opponents at a church in Dovertown, near Cordova, March 6. “It surprises me a little bit, given how long it’s taken to develop to where you get what seems like a genuine interest in what it’s about.”
Scribner said that he sees a gradual change in the university’s public statements regarding Shepherd Bend since May 2007, when the school actually issued a request for proposal (RFP) asking for proposals to mine the land. It was this RFP, reported in the Tuscaloosa News and other outlets, that alerted Cordova residents to the university’s plans. “There wasn’t nearly as much opposition back then,” Scribner said. “There was in Cordova.”
Gradually the focus of efforts to stop the mine by Riverkeeper and others shifted away just from the mining company and the permit appeals process to the university.”Then we realized that the UA cares a lot more about presenting a positive image than Drummond Coal. And you’ve seen the progression,” he said, adding, “Now [the university] always says, ‘We have no current plans. We have not been approached by anyone.'”
Scribner also noted that the BWWB continues its appeal of the mining permit already granted to the mine by the Alabama Surface Mining Commission and that Southern Environmental Law Center is appealing a waste-water discharge permit granted by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
The mining company, Shepherd Bend LLC, is owned by Gary N. Drummond of the Drummond Company. He is a UA trustee emeritus and still a large donor to the school.
Jesse Chambers is the editor of Weld Local and a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.