By Dennis Pillion
September 18, 2023 - A coal company owned by the family of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice continues to rack up fines and legal troubles over pollution from its now-closed coking plant in Birmingham.
Environmental groups Black Warrior Riverkeeper and GASP filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing Bluestone Coke of violating the Clean Water Act from its shuttered facility in north Birmingham.
Water pollution from the closed Bluestone Coke Facility enters Five Mile Creek in Birmingham, Ala.
Nelson Brooke, Black Warrior Riverkeeper
Meanwhile, the Jefferson County Board of Health said Bluestone Coke now owes an additional $356,000 in penalties and late fees for failure to comply with a 2022 settlement over air pollution violations at the plant. In 2022, Bluestone Coke agreed to pay $925,000 in penalties, the largest fine ever issued by the Jefferson County Board of Health, which regulates air pollution in Birmingham.
The Clean Water Act lawsuit, filed by attorneys from the Southern Environmental Law Center representing the environmental groups, says Bluestone has “continually discharged unpermitted pollutants into Five Mile Creek and its tributary.”
The facility has been closed since 2021, but the groups say that polluted runoff continues to enter the creek, which eventually enters the Black Warrior River. The groups filed a notice of intent to sue Bluestone in July, as required by the Clean Water Act, but say the polluted discharges have continued.
The groups say they have documented more than 390 violations, including the discharge of pollutants like barium, strontium and E. coli.
“We gave Bluestone Coke 60 days to stop their illegal actions,” Sarah Stokes, Senior Attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a news release.
“Because they refuse to keep polluted water from flowing off the property, filing suit is a necessary next step at this point.”
Bluestone is the latest owner of the plant near the 35th Avenue Superfund Site in north Birmingham that has been linked to heavily contaminated soil in the neighborhoods of Collegeville, Fairmont and Harriman Park.
For more than 100 years, the plant has operated to create coke, a coal-based fuel used in steelmaking. The coking process, in which coal is baked in super-heated ovens with low oxygen to prevent flames, generates significant air and water emissions requiring significant pollution controls.
The plant was purchased in 2019 by the Justice family but shut down in December 2021 after health officials determined the plant could not meet pollution limits without substantial improvements.
Bluestone representatives did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday on the lawsuit or the status of its Birmingham facility.
Black Warrior Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke said the creek would be an asset to the area if it were not polluted.
“Five Mile Creek is a beautiful spring-fed stream that would be regularly enjoyed by locals if it weren’t for all the pollution discharged by Bluestone Coke,” Brooke said.
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin has urged the Board not to renew the plant’s operating permit.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against numerous companies operated by the Justice family in May, alleging that the companies failed to pay more than $5 million in fines related to its coal mining operations.
A Bluestone representative told AL.com in 2022 that the company was in financial distress, but “remains committed to fulfilling its obligations under its Consent Agreement with the JCBH and getting caught up on its civil penalty payments.”
The plant is still idle, but the Clean Water Act lawsuit alleges that pollution continues to leak into Five Mile Creek after being shuttered and has continued to discharge pollution including “staggering amounts of coal, coke, slag, and their associated sediment into the Unnamed Tributary of Five Mile Creek,” the lawsuit states.
GASP, an air quality advocacy group, collected several air samples surrounding the plant in 2019 and 2020 showing high levels of napthalene and benzene, two known or suspected carcinogens. GASP was granted intervenor status in the original complaint against Bluestone and has been a party to the legal proceedings.
“We must hold the owners of Bluestone Coke accountable for their track record of putting their bottom line in front of the health and safety of Birmingham families,” Jilisa Milton, Deputy Director of GASP said.