Environmentalists to sue NM coal mine for contaminating groundwater

Environmentalist group The Sierra Club plans to sue San Juan Coal Company, a New Mexico coal mine, because the coal ash stored in its unlined landfills has seeped into the ground and is contaminating nearby waterways and wells, according to The New Mexico Independent. The Sierra Club insists that this seepage of toxic material into groundwater poses a danger to livestock, wildlife and families.

The company agrees the groundwater is polluted, but says it is not responsible for the contamination. “San Juan Coal Company is confident that allegations of water contamination as a result of coal combustion by-product (CCB ) placement at the San Juan Mine are incorrect and are not supported by water monitoring data,” Charles Roybal, senior counsel for the coal company’s parent company, BHP Billiton, told The Independent.

Skirting responsibility for such environmental disasters is not uncommon among coal-firing plants. Last year, a coal ash impoundment pond at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Kingston, Tenn., plant breached, sending a wave of toxic material onto 300 acres of a rural community. The massive 1.1 billion gallon spill is listed as one of the largest – if not the largest – environmental disaster in U.S. history.

The TVA is engaged in a 3-year, $1 billion cleanup of the land in Tennessee, but critics worry the world’s largest utility could avoid many of the fines and penalties because a Department of Justice position on the issue shelters the agency from civil penalties in suits brought by citizen groups under some federal environmental statues.

Perhaps San Juan Mine is looking for the same “out.”