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March 13, 2013

Mountaintop-Removal Coal Mining Poisons Appalachia's Waterways

Wv mtr site 2I remember the first time I saw a mountaintop-removal coal mining site -- Kayford Mountain in southern West Virginia. Those images have never left my mind -- a barren landscape where there was once lush forest. And right around the destroyed site, homes where people were trying to live despite having the world blown up next door.

Peoples' lives are never the same once a mountaintop-removal coal mine starts blasting. One major loss for these families is clean water. We expect our water to be safe and drinkable. Many folks here in Appalachia have streams or creeks running through their backyards. Kids from Kentucky to Tennessee grew up fishing, and many of us still enjoy heading out with the pole for a lazy Sunday afternoon hoping to snag a trout.

Sadly, for many people in Appalachia, that pristine ideal no longer exists. Pollution from mountaintop-removal mining has poisoned many of our streams making them dangerous for certain fish and other aquatic life.

Mountaintop-removal is the process by which companies use explosives to remove the peaks of Appalachian mountains to get at the coal underneath. They then dump millions of tons of rubble and toxic waste into the streams and valleys below the mining sites. This devastating practice has damaged or destroyed nearly 2,000 miles of streams, and threatens to destroy 1.4 million acres of mountaintops and forests by 2020.

Mountaintop-removal coal mining allows toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, selenium, and arsenic to leach into Appalachia's local water supplies. Research shows that "residents in mining areas -- especially mountaintop removal mining areas -- have higher incidents of cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, birth defects, premature mortality and other issues."

One key measure of water pollution from mining is called water conductivity. The Environmental Protection Agency has stated that "high levels of conductivity, dissolved solids, and sulfates are a primary cause of water quality impairments" downstream from where mountaintop-removal rubble is dumped.

In other words, corporations dump the waste from their mountaintop-removal mines into nearby valleys, and at the bottom of each of those valleys is a stream that gets covered up. The water still runs through all that dirt, it just comes out the other side chock-full of pollution.

Scientific studies show that, when conductivity levels get too high below mine sites, some fish can no longer maintain healthy populations. And when selenium, a key contributor to conductivity levels, gets above a certain point, fish can be born badly deformed.These fish, and our waterways, are signals that the safety of our water and the health of our environment are declining.

Unfortunately, the governments of the four states that make up our Appalachian community -- Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky -- refuse to take the threat to our water seriously. West Virginia and Kentucky are actually both considering state action to make it even easier to pollute our waterways with mining waste.

Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee have shown themselves unable to responsibly enforce clean water safeguards, and that puts our families at risk. That's why now is the time for our EPA to work on a real solution to the problem.

As part of the Sierra Club's 100 Days of Action on Climate and Clean Energy, this week we're focusing on the theme of mountaintop-removal coal mining. For the sake of our rivers, our community, and the responsible stewardship of our land, it's time for enforceable clean water protections against coal mining pollution.

TAKE ACTION: Protect Appalachia's water from mountaintop-removal coal mining.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Beyond Coal Campaign Director

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