When he took office in 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos trumpeted mining as a “locomotive” that would drive the economy forward. Recently though, the Santos administration dealt a series of harsh blows to the country’s No. 2 coal exporter, Alabama-based Drummond Co., in response to a series of legal blunders committed in 2013. Coming down this hard on a company like Drummond is an unprecedented move for Colombia’s government, signaling that from here on out, multinationals that come to mine the country’s natural resources could face a new, hard-line stance when they don’t play by the rules.
The Drummond scandal broke out when Colombian photojournalist Alejandro Arias stumbled on the scene of a sinking coal barge off the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta. He snapped a series of blurry photographs and published them on his personal blog. Only through the media picking up the photos and circulating the story did Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment find out about an environmental catastrophe Drummond was supposed to alert them of immediately. Drummond sent in a formal announcement more than a week after the incident.
After nearly a year of investigation, Colombia fined Drummond twice: $3.5 million for environmental damage associated with the spill that it failed to report, and $100 million for back taxes it had neglected to pay. Then, on Jan. 1, the coal miner had its shipping license suspended for failure to comply with a regulation requiring it to upgrade its coal-loading system, a measure to guard against environmental damage. The suspension is yet another blow that will set the company back financially.