Drummond Co. helped make Colombia the world’s No. 4 coal exporter. But after alleged dirty deeds, now Bogota’s punishing the Alabama firm.
BOGOTA, Colombia — By shipping 80,000 tons of coal per day, the Alabama-based Drummond Co. has helped turned Colombia into the world’s fourth largest coal exporter — but it’s always been a dirty business.
From Drummond’s Caribbean port near the resort city of Santa Marta, cranes loaded Drummond coal onto open-air barges for delivery to ships. This process kicked up coal dust that fouled the air, water and beaches, angering local fishermen, beachgoers, hotel owners and environmental activists.
But it all came to a halt Jan. 13 after the Colombian government ordered Drummond to stop loading coal until it meets new environmental standards. Under a Colombian law that took effect Jan. 1, coal must now be loaded directly onto ships via enclosed conveyor belts, a much cleaner system.
“Drummond is flouting the law by maintaining a coal export system that is polluting the bay of Santa Marta,” President Juan Manuel Santos said, shortly before his government ordered the shutdown.
The Drummond drama reflects the hurdles in President Santos’ quest to quickly scale up mining. When he was inaugurated four years ago, Santos declared that mining would become one of the country’s economic “locomotives.”
As security improves in a country plagued by drug traffickers and Marxist guerrillas, vast new areas have opened up for gold, silver, nickel and coal extraction. Mining now provides nearly one-fourth of Colombia’s export income.
But it can leave a huge footprint.
Massive protests spurred by fears of a future of contaminated water and mountains of mining waste have put many projects on hold. In some Colombian villages near mining sites, people suffer from mercury poisoning and black lung disease.
The coal mining industry has already stained the beaches of Santa Marta, one of Colombia’s premier tourist destinations.
“The color of the beaches has changed,” said Julio Vera, a private energy consultant in Bogota. “The sand in Santa Marta was very white. At this moment the beach in Santa Marta is not white. It is gray or black in some parts.”
The controversy over Drummond’s outdated coal-loading methods isn’t the first time the company has been accused of misdeeds in Colombia.
The company has been embroiled in long-running court battles in both the United States and Colombia over its alleged ties to Colombian death squads that killed labor activists working for the company. Drummond has vigorously denied any wrongdoing.
In an episode that exposed the perils of its outdated loading system, a Drummond barge last January dumped 1,900 tons of coal into the ocean near Santa Marta.
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