Column: Coal mine would strip University of its reputation

By Wesley Vaughn

On its website, in large, bold typeface, U. Alabama asserts itself as “an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.”

If that is truly the case, then I trust the University will decide not to lease the land it owns near Cordova in Walker County for the purpose of a 1,773-acre coal strip mine.

The land, called Shepherd Bend for its river-crafted crook shape, is situated on the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River. All of 800 feet away sits a Birmingham Water Works drinking water intake that already copes with the discharge of one mine further upriver.

The peculiar story all started in 2007. According to the Birmingham News, Drummond Company, owned by former UA system trustee Garry Drummond, suggested the University seek mining proposals for its 1,700 acres at the fork. At first, Drummond Company claimed it had no interest in the land, but later the year, a subsidiary of the company under the name of Shepherd Bend LLC was granted a wastewater discharge permit for a proposed mine on that very land from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

The limits in the discharge permit might as well be nonexistent. The Birmingham News wrote that “even if the mine stays within the permit limits, the water being discharged would have 10 times the level of iron and 40 times the level of manganese recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water.”

Mulberry Fork supplies drinking water for 200,000 BWW customers that, according to the Water Works board, could suffer both financial and health-related consequences due to the “unprecedented” proximity of a major coal mine to a public water supply.

The Birmingham residents are only one portion of the Alabamians affected by this proposed mine. The residents of Cordova constitute the other segment that the University must consider and be committed to “enhancing” their quality of life.

The Alabama Surface Mining Commission, which issues mining permits, is still deciding whether or not to grant such a permit for the proposed mine. A public conference on Aug. 19 at Bevill State Community College in Sumiton will serve as a forum for the agency to gauge public opinion.

Currently, two sides prevail in Cordova. Mayor Jack Scott sees it as a boon for short-term economic development. “We support it. This is Walker County. We are famous for strip mining coal. It’ll have no effect but positive for Cordova.”

Long-term, though, Cordova cannot possibly survive and definitely will not prosper by relying on strip mines. The estimated 110 jobs created by the proposed mine, and, according to Scott, the upwards of $40 million that could be brought into the city through leases, royalties and federal grants would only function as a stopgap to the community’s problems. Not to mention the mine could hinder future development.

Years ago, Cordova planned to reinvigorate its city as a “riverfront bedroom community” close to Birmingham with the help of the new Interstate 22 that will soon connect the two cities. The strip mine, which would be located just south of the interstate, could severely impede such plans.

Area native Randy Palmer sums up the implications of the strip mine: “We worked so hard to come up with a plan for Cordova that would help our city grow once I-22 is finished. If this mine happens, all that work is for nothing. The plan is wasted and we cut short any growth before the interstate is even finished.”

Additionally and simplistically, the mine would propagate an environmental blight in a scenic landscape. Enough natural serenity has been cleared for the sake of modern expansion — I’m loving the beautiful new asphalt terrain next to the softball field.

The proposed mine still has a ways to go before it is fully approved. Black Warrior Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center are challenging the pollution discharge permit granted by ADEM. Also, the ASMC still has to decide on whether to approve a mining permit for the Drummond Company subsidiary.

For a university dedicated to improving the state of Alabama, leasing the land for a strip mine would be an aberrant decision. This proposed mine, more than an hour away from campus, does not visibly damage the university itself, but it has the potential to harm two communities and the reputation of the self-proclaimed flagship university of the state.

The University of Alabama should decide not to lease its land, even if the mine passes all regulatory tests. A university’s purpose is to prepare its students for the future so that they can improve their communities. This university needs to prove that it practices what it preaches.

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