Saturday, December 17, 2011

Shepherd Bending

by M. David Hornbuckle

On November 30, Dr. Willy Rice, a prominent UA alumnus and big donor to the school, wrote a letter to the University of Alabama National Alumni Association saying he would donate only $40 this year because he is concerned about the fate of the Black Warrior River, especially with regard to coal mining in its watershed area. In the letter, Rice waxed poetic about his boyhood along the banks of the Black Warrior River, and he promised that, “under the right circumstances,” if the UA system showed it would “be a good steward” of the money, he was prepared to leave the bulk of his seven-figure estate to the University of Alabama.

“But what exactly does the University of Alabama have to do with the coal mining along the river?” you might ask. In October 2010, a permit was issued to allow a new coal mine, known as the Shepherd Bend mine, on the banks of the Black Warrior River. However, it won’t be practical to build the mine unless the Board of Trustees of the University of Alabama System decides to allow it. That’s because the UA System owns significant land and mineral rights in the area designated for the mine.

It’s been noted in this newspaper and elsewhere that the proposed mine will release waste a mere 800 feet from one of the major water intakes for the city of Birmingham. What has not been discussed as often is the fact that this proposed mine is also near popular recreational areas.

Charles Scribner from the conservational group Black Warrior Riverkeeper says, “The mine’s multiple discharge points would be a problem for the river itself and the many people who recreate there. The Black Warrior River’s Mulberry Fork is a hotspot for public recreation, particularly boating, fishing, and swimming. Countless citizens actually eat the fish they catch in that area. The public usage of this stretch of the river is enhanced by the fact that Reed’s Ferry is a popular boat launch location right by Shepherd Bend.”

Dr. Robert Angus, a professor in the Biology Department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, testified, “ADEM’s exemption of iron, manganese, and TSS from almost all precipitation events, and failure to include limits on TDS, sulfate, chlorides, aluminum and other heavy metals at all, will cause a violation of Alabama’s water quality standards because of its harm to fish and wildlife in the Mulberry Fork and its tributaries.”

Environmental engineer Warner Golden reported that the sediment discharged from the site is “is the equivalent of 160 dump trucks of sediment resulting from one storm event.”

Scribner adds, “Dozens of private property owners in the immediate Shepherd Bend area have echoed these concerns. Many of them fish, boat, and swim in the area. They are also concerned about the reduction of their property values and quality of life as a result of a strip mine starting a Shepherd Bend.”

The Board of Trustees has been implored by student groups, environmental groups, concerned citizens, the media, and even the Birmingham City Commission to refrain from leasing this land for coal mining, but the Board has thus far been eerily silent about its intentions. Last month, 1000 students from UAB, Sanford, and UA signed a petition asking the Board to take a stand. Students from Montevallo sent another 300 signatures a few days ago. And, now there is Dr. Rice’s letter to the Alumni Association.

So far, there has been no response. Scribner says, “While we expect to hear the same boilerplate response from UA, we hope that each signature, letter, call, or news report further convinces UA that stopping the Shepherd Bend Mine is the right decision.”

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