Petitioners at UAB seek to stop mine

William Evans

Joe Olson cares about the purity of his drinking water. In fact, he cares about the other 200,000 Birmingham residents whose drinking water he says would suffer from the impurities lurking in wastewater discharged from a proposed coal mine along the Black Warrior River.

In 2007, Shepherd Bend, LLC, a coal mining company owned by the members of the family who own Drummond Coal, proposed a coal mine 800 feet from a major drinking water intake of the Birmingham Water Works Board that filters water for 200,000 Birmingham residents.

The proposed mine would discharge water from its settling ponds into the river just upstream from the Water Works drinking water intake at the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. The University of Alabama System owns the majority of the land of the proposed 1,773-acre coal mine.

At the suggestion of Drummond Coal, the UA System sent out a request for proposals to mine the approximately 1,700 acres the UA System owns at the bend of the river near the town of Cordova, according to a 2010 Birmingham News article. According to University officials, no companies responded to the proposals, including Drummond Coal.

That same year, Shepherd Bend applied for and acquired a permit from the Alabama Department of Environmental Management to discharge wastewater from its proposed coal mine site, according to the article.

The Black Warrior Riverkeeper and the Southern Environmental Law Center have sued ADEM because of the issuance of the permit. The litigation has not concluded.

Olson, a senior majoring in math and physics at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, wants the UA System to declare a position on the proposed coal mine. The UA System has not issued a decisive yes or no to sell or lease the land to Shepherd Bend. University officials have said Shepherd Bend has not approached the UA System requesting to use its property.

To strengthen his campaign to force a declaration from the UA System, Olson has initiated a petition that has attracted more than 3,500 signatures.

“We just want the University to come out on their own and acknowledge this is a bad idea,” he said.

“The University’s own mission statement says its main concern is to enhance the quality of life for the community and Alabamians,” Olson said. “That includes listening to Alabamians when they voice their opinions. The University should fulfill its mission by agreeing to neither sell nor lease its land for the Shepherd Bend mine.”

Sarah Parsons, the senior organizer for the petition, said the issue lies in the property itself.

“The issue here is that the Shepherd Bend coal mine – the proposed site – takes up a large chunk of land owned by the UA System,” she said. “The signatures of the petition are there to urge the UA System to publicly commit to not selling or leasing the land to Shepherd Bend.”

Olson will organize a rally outside the UA Board of Trustees meeting at UAB in February. This year will not be Olson’s first effort at announcing his protest to the Board of Trustees.

“Last year, as the president of UAB’s student environmental group, we had rallies, we collected petitions by hand and we submitted those to the Board of Trustees,” he said. “The first petition had 700 signatures. The second had 1,000, but each time we just got a silent response. I decided then I don’t want to quit this job. I decided to take a step further.

“This is not in the best interest of the city of Birmingham or the UA System for its reputation. They’re the ones who have the power to really stop this.”

Anyone interested in signing the petition can find it at: