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Last month, a ruptured pipe underneath a coal ash impoundment at a Duke Energy power plant polluted the waters of the Dan River in North Carolina. State environmental officials in that case have cited Duke for not obtaining the proper permits for discharges into waterways.
The settlement with Alpha covers a different source of water pollution from coal — from mines and from the processing plants where the coal is prepared for shipping.
Still, for the Obama administration, the settlement is likely to generate more criticism from the coal industry, their lobbyists and supporters in Congress. They have said that this administration is going after coal with new regulations aimed at reducing mercury and other toxic air pollutants from power plant smokestacks, as well as the first-ever proposal to reduce carbon from yet-to-be-built coal-fired power plants.
But when it comes to water and coal, the administration mostly has played catch-up.
The EPA says coal mining and the burning of coal for electricity are some of the largest sources of water pollution in the country. But the agency has struggled to get a hold on the problem.
Efforts by the EPA to address pollution from mountaintop coal mines have been vacated by a federal court. That decision is under appeal.
There are no federal limits on the vast majority of chemicals that power plants pipe directly into rivers, streams and reservoirs from coal waste sites. The EPA last year proposed setting limits on a few of the compounds, in what would be the first update since 1982.
Also, more than five years after a spill from a coal ash pond in Tennessee covered 300 acres, the EPA has not issued final rules governing the disposal of coal ash.
Before Wednesday's settlement, Alpha already was hurting financially, but the company said the civil penalty would not result in any layoffs. Last year, Alpha lost $1.1 billion on total revenues of $4.9 billion.
The company acquired Massey Energy in 2011, and more than half of the violations covered by the new settlement stemmed from that company's operations. Massey was fined $20 million in 2008 by the federal government for similar violations of water pollution laws.