Alpha Natural Resources regularly reported chronic coal mining violations of the federal Clean Water Act to the state Department of Environmental Protection, but the company was not fined until a federal investigation uncovered those offenses.
In an investigation that spanned several years and culminated in a $27.5 million fine Wednesday covering Alpha operations that polluted waterways in five Appalachian states, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that Alpha's own water-monitoring reports showed about 1,600 violations that didn't rise to the DEP's focus.
John Stefanko, DEP's deputy secretary for mining, said Alpha's discharge-monitoring reports are reviewed by staff but not always right away.
"Maybe there were some gaps," Mr. Stefanko said. "Maybe data wasn't reviewed in three months but in six months.
"Data probably wasn't being monitored in a timely manner," he said.
Mr. Stefanko said the agency was working with Alpha to resolve its compliance issues once it became aware of them. But it hadn't reached the point of enforcement by the time the EPA was ready to move forward with its settlement agreement. In order to avoid duplicating efforts, the DEP joined the federal consent decree, he said.
Going back to 2006, discharges of manganese, aluminum and iron from mining and coal-processing operations at Alpha's Emerald and Cumberland mines in Greene County exceeded the limits set by the DEP.
Companies are supposed to sample the streams they're impacting at prescribed intervals -- monthly, biweekly or more frequently depending on the permit. Then they report this data to the DEP.
"They're supposed to point out when there's an exceedance of a limit," said Steve Kunz, an ecological consultant with Schmid & Co. in Media, Pa., which researched the DEP's oversight of mining discharges for the Citizens Coal Council. "Sometimes they don't and sometimes they do. But it doesn't matter because DEP never looks at it anyway."
Mr. Kunz's firm discovered the noncompliance issues and chronicled them in a report in July 2010, a copy of which was sent to the DEP.
"We got no response," Mr. Kunz said.
Gene Kitts, senior vice president of environmental affairs at Alpha, said the company began talking with the DEP about its compliance issues around 2011 when Alpha's discharge permits were due to expire and the company knew its history of violations would be scrutinized during a renewal process.
"We have some sites that have had chronic problems that require some sort of specialized treatment," Mr. Kitts said.
Other locations went from occasionally exceeding permit limits to consistent noncompliance as a result of stricter environmental standards over the years, he said.
"Alpha is a very good company," the DEP's Mr. Stefanko said. "I think they're moving in the right direction. They wanted to get in compliance. They reached out to us."
The Citizens Coal Council looked at discharges between 2007 and 2009 at three longwall mines in its investigation. One was Alpha's Emerald mine and the other two belonged to Consol Energy Inc., a Cecil-based coal and gas company.
Consol's pattern of violations matched Alpha's, Mr. Kunz said.
"It would be easy to say this is just one bad actor but it's across [the industry]," he said.
The Citizens Coal Council considered suing Consol for its violations, as it is now suing Alpha, but decided that Alpha was an easier mark.
Still, according to DEP's Mr. Stefanko, there might be similar conversations going on between regulators and Consol.
"I'm aware that they're engaged with the EPA," he said.
He declined to say whether the DEP is looking into Consol's compliance history.
Consol and the EPA said they could not comment on potential negotiations.
"Unfortunately, this is not unique" to Alpha, said John Capacasa, director of the water protection division at EPA's Mid-Atlantic Region. "I think we've had a number of compliance challenges in Appalachia."
Anya Litvak: email@example.com or 412-263-1455.