Citizens continue to ask UA for direct answer to strip-mine

Katherine Martin

On Feb. 16, the Black Warrior Riverkeeper organization sent an open letter to the University asking for a response about plans to lease land and mineral rights for coal mining operations on the Black Warrior River.

The location on the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior where Shepherd Bend, LLC, has permits to begin mining is adjacent to one of Birmingham Water Work’s major water intakes, said Riverkeeper Nelson Brooke.

Of the 1,773 acres of land that could be mined, Brooke said, the University owns the majority of the property. In order to start mining, the company has to lease the property from the UA system.

Cathy Andreen, director of Media Relations, said the University’s position has not changed on the issue, and the administration does not plan to respond to the letter.

“The University has no current plans to sell or lease the land and has not been approached about selling or leasing the land,” Andreen said.

Caitlin McClusky, president of University of Alabama Environmental Council said the same response has been given by the University throughout the year.

Both Brooke and McClusky said the University should be giving a straightforward answer.

“The whole purpose of the letter was to elicit a yes or no,” Brooke said. “We know that’s their position, but what we’re saying is that it’s time for them to take a stand on the issue regardless of whether or not they’ve been contacted or they contacted anyone or if there are plans in place.

“There’s nothing stopping the University of Alabama from stepping out in front of the issue and doing the right thing and announcing that they will not do so when the time comes.”

McClusky said, the University should consider doing a complete study of how the mine would affect the community and the water.

“Honestly, the permits have been issued,” she said. “All they’re waiting on is a yes or a no from the trustees.”

Brooke said when the permit was issued, it wasn’t taken into account that the water supplied drinking water.

The levels of sediment and heavy metal that could come from the coal mine discharge may be so toxic that the water would no longer be capable of being treated for drinking at all, Brooke said.

“Beyond being forthright with the public,” Brooke said, “we think it would be great for the University not only to denounce plans for strip mining there but do something to protect the land.”

Brooke said the most critical thing that can be done to protect the drinking water supply is watershed protection, which protects the land from all forms of development.

Brooke suggested the University could use the land for a park, archaeological reserve or even sell it to the Birmingham Water Works board.

“Now, those other options aren’t going to bring them oodles of money, but it’s hard to put a price on doing the right thing, especially when it has a potential effect on hundreds of thousands of people’s drinking water,” he said.

McClusky said, the UAEC has been working throughout the year to gain recognition for the cause.

The organization has created boycott postcards made by the artist Amos Kennedy that students can sign saying they will refuse to utilize some services the University has to offer, McClusky said.

“We feel that if the University is going to treat itself like a business then students can do the same thing,” she said.

The UAEC has also sent out a faculty petition and has a general petition on their website, ua.edu/uaec.

Throughout the month of March, the UAEC will have a table in the Ferguson Center with more information about Shepherd Bend, as well as postcards and the petitions. They are also planning another opposition rally for the end of April.

McClusky said the University’s decision shows its status on sustainability.

“I would like for everyone to realize sustainability is a very important aspect of a university campus and our University should be striving for it,” she said. “This mine is definitely not a part of that.”