In a settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency, Alpha Natural Resources Inc., a major U.S. coal company, has agreed to pay a record $27.5 million in civil fines and spend about $160 million for projects to curb discharges of pollutants from its mines in five Eastern states.

Under a consent decree filed on March 5 in federal district court in Charleston, W.Va., the company, based in Bristol, Va., will settle thousands of permit violations between 2006 and 2013. The settlement covers about 79 mines and 25 processing plants.

Gene Kitts, Alpha senior vice president of environmental affairs, said in an interview that the company has about $160 million in environmental capital improvements planned or under way at two mines in western Pennsylvania.

The program includes about $150 million to treat water pumped from the company’s Cumberland and Emerald mines in southwestern Pennsylvania. The capital projects pre-date the new consent decree and stem from a 2013 Pennsylvania state permit that requires Alpha to meet certain effluent limits by September 2016, he says.

The permit allows for a new nanofiltration plant at the Cumberland mine to remove sulfates. Kitts adds that the company also will be building a new pipeline from the plant to the Monongahela River. The combined cost of the nanofiltration plant and pipeline is about $75 million, Kitts says.

The pipeline will allow the company “to take advantage of the fact that we’re discharging to a much larger stream, so the limits will be different than what we currently had,” Kitts says. The mine now discharges water into two small streams.

Kitts says that the company has been discussing the project with engineering and construction firms for about a year to 18 months. It also “held a pre-bid meeting with a number of companies that offer design-build-operate services.”  He says that construction has to begin by Dec. 8 and he expects to complete the bid and award a contract in the next several weeks.

Another project, also estimated at $75 million, aims to seal off the active and potential future parts of the Cumberland mine from the area that has already been mined. That would allow Alpha to treat less water than it otherwise would, according to Kitts. He says, “That’s essentially a tunneling project, where we’re constructing a new slope [and] access entry down into the deep mine” and also install concrete bulkheads.

The underground work will be done by a combination of in-house staff and outside specialty contractors, who have already been selected. That work is “ready to start,” Kitts says. “We’re doing site development work now.”

In addition, Kitts says the plan calls for about $12 million to install passive wetlands systems for selenium removal at about a half-dozen other sites in West Virginia.

Federal agencies say that the $27.5 million in civil penalties represent the largest such fine under the Clean Water Act’s Section 402.

Of the total, the federal government will receive $13.25 million; West Virginia will receive $8.9 million, Pennsylvania $4.1 million and Kentucky $687,500. The states’ shares are based on the number of violations within their borders.

Robert Dreher, acting assistant attorney general for DOJ's environment and natural resources division, said in a statement, "The unprecedented size of the civil penalty in this settlement sends a strong deterrent message to others in this industry that such egregious violations of the nation's Clean Water Act will not be tolerated."

But environmental groups criticized the settlement. Diane Bady, founder of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said in a statement, "This solution didn't work seven years ago, when EPA and the Dept. of Justice took action to stop Massey Energy's cuture of contaminating streams."