When it comes to clean water, the intersection of human health, environmental stewardship and economics create murky depths difficult to fathom. A stunning example of this is still playing out in Flint, Michigan. It started in August 2014 when positive tests for contaminants in the city’s tap water prompted an advisory for citizens to boil their water for safety. The crisis grew until a state of emergency was declared in January 2016 due to excessive lead contamination that was poisoning children. The fact that the richest country in the world would not provide safe drinking water for its citizens just to save money made international headlines. Yet 452 miles to the south, the creation of contaminated ground water around the Kayford Mountain in West Virginia is largely unknown.
Located in the heart of the Appalachian Mountain chain, many of Kayford’s peaks have been dynamited and dumped into the valley below. The dumping buries creeks and streams, leaching lead and other toxins into the groundwater below. The dynamiting, which occurs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, sprays dust and rock into the air, spreading coal dust and contaminants farther. Regular and devastating flooding occurs because water running off the mountains has no place to go, spreading more toxins into the water supply and soil of nearby communities. The reason for this destruction and its consequences is a single word: coal.
At least 500 more mountaintops have disappeared forever as a result of strip mining for coal. Called mountaintop removal (MTR), the process strips the land of all trees, bushes, topsoil and other vegetation. The remaining rock is dynamited and removed to reach coal seams. All of this material, called “overburden,” is legally dumped over the side of the mountain. According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a total of 1,408,372 acres of rich forest had already been cut down by Appalachian surface mining operations. That’s 2,200 square miles, which is approximately the size of the state of Delaware.
Those mountaintops converted to rubble renamed “valley fill” when it buries naturally occurring creeks and streams. In its report Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fill in Appalachia, the EPA estimates that MTR valley fills have buried more than 2,000 miles of vital Appalachian headwater streams, and are poisoning many more. The water downstream of mountaintop removal mines has significantly higher levels of sulfate and selenium, and increases in electrical conductivity, a measure of heavy metals, according to Appalachian Voices. The group explains thatchanges in water quality will kill aquatic species, or disrupt their life cycles to the extent that entire populations will dwindle, and possibly disappear.
Mountaintop removal mining site in the Appalachian Mountain Range.
Photo by Lynn Willis, flight courtesy of Southwings
The Appalachians are described as “one of the most diverse assemblages of plants and animals found in the world’s temperate deciduous forests,” according to the World Wildlife Fund. But the current U.S. administration is choosing the permanent destruction of this unique place on the planet to cater to coal companies that are only providing three percent of all electricity used in this country.
The Stream Protection Rule was adopted by the U.S. Department of the Interior in December 2016. The purpose was to update “rules that are over 30 years old in order to more completely implement the law, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, to better protect the health and safety of people and the environment from the adverse effects of surface and underground coal mining.” Republicans bragged about quashing the rule as a means TO destroy the Obama administration’s effort to protect the environment.
The way they did it, without even considering the scientific evidence behind the rule, was “devastating,” says Deborah Murray, attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who actively engaged participated in the public comment process for the rule making.
“It’s mind-boggling to think that Congress can, in an instant, get rid of a rule that took the Department of Interior—after careful analysis, numerous public hearings, consideration of more than 150,000 written comments and statements and reliance on the best scientific information on the impacts of mountaintop mining—nearly nine years to adopt,” she says.
“Characterizing the SPR as ‘job killing’ is false. Certain members of Congress early on seized upon the rule-making effort as their ‘poster child’ for what they falsely called the Obama administration’s ‘War on Coal.’ There was no analysis of any of the proposed provisions of the SPR or any explanation of how they would allegedly kill jobs. By contrast, the Department of Interior was required to do an economic analysis of the effect of the Rule, and DOI found that any loss of jobs would be more than offset by an average annual gain of 280 full-time jobs, prompted by the rule changes.”
Describing the rule as “common sense,” Murray explains that one new requirement was more monitoring of groundwater and surface water. This alone would have added new jobs because coal mining companies aren’t doing this enough. This process would establish the baseline conditions in an area before mining begins. During and after mining, the testing would assess the impact on water quality. Murray believes, “Citizens have the right not only to have access to clean water, but to also know what is in their water and how mining might be affecting their water.” Similar demands for water-quality transparency have been made in Flint and will be playing out in the courts as lawsuits go to trial this year.
But the likelihood of another SPR being considered in the future seems unlikely.
“The way in which the rule was killed matters because the Congressional Review Act forbids the adoption of any substantially similar rules absent congressional approval,” Murray says. “We don’t know what ‘substantially similar’ means, as the Congressional Review Act has only been used on one other occasion thus far. But Congress’s repeal of the rule will greatly hinder any future administration’s efforts to curb the worst excesses of mountaintop mining and protect public health and drinking water in these communities.”
Now the destruction of streams and mountaintops in Appalachia caused by mountaintop mining can continue unchecked.
Top photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture
Margo is a science writer poking her nose into everything that piques her curiosity, from NASA and sea turtles to climate change and green tech.