Big Coal’s audacity can be astounding. For years, the coal company Consol has been dumping toxic wastewater into mined-out underground mines in Buchanan County, Virginia, without the consent of the owners of the property where these old mines are located. In 2008, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that this is an illegal trespass against the landowners’ basic property rights. In other words, the Court affirmed what should have been obvious to Consol: landowners have a right to say “NO” to the dumping of waste on their property.
In one publicly disclosed 2010 settlement, Consol paid $75 million in damages resulting from this practice. Clearly, the Supreme Court’s recognition of landowners’ basic property rights was getting to be a major inconvenience for the company. And when following the law is inconvenient, the coal industry’s response is often to try to rewrite the law. Most well-known are the industry’s continuing attempts in Congress to gut the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws now that these laws are being better-enforced. But to change Virginia’s longstanding property rights law, Consol had to go to Richmond.
During the 2012 General Assembly session, the Virginia Coal Association and Consol worked hard to advance House Bill (HB) 710 – a bill that, in its original form, would have given coal companies a carte blanche right to do whatever they wanted with empty underground mines on other people’s property – without obtaining consent from the landowners.