Ann League was in the midst of building her “dream home” in the mountains of Tennessee when she found out that a strip mine was going in next door.
“Three months after the mining started on Zeb Mountain, my well water turned bright orange,” Leauge, a member of the Alliance for Appalachia, a group that held a rally in D.C. on Tuesday, told ThinkProgress. “We were lucky enough that we could afford bottled water for drinking and cooking, but we had to use that water for showering and laundry too.”
Ultimately League ended up selling (and losing money on) the house and moving back to Knoxville, even though her neighbors and friends — and as she said, her “heart” — still lived in the mountains. That experience was part of the reason why League started working with Alliance for Appalachia, a group that aims to end mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and advocates for water pollution policy reforms. Mountaintop removal mining is considered to be the most destructive way of extracting coal — instead of using shafts to reach coal underground, the top of a mountain is blown up to get at the coal underneath. This creates a lot of waste and debris, which easily gets into watersheds. Members of Alliance for Appalachia traveled to Washington, D.C. on Monday to meet with members of the Obama administration about water pollution issues in Appalachia and to attend a rally for clean water in front of the White House Tuesday.
CREDIT: Katie Valentine
League, one of the members who met with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and Council on Environmental Quality Monday, told ThinkProgress that the main goal of the meeting was to highlight a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) the Obama administration signed in 2009. The MOU outlined the “unprecedented steps” the administration planned to take regarding mountaintop removal’s pollution of water, including increasing regulation on mountaintop removal mining and requiring stricter environmental reviews for mountaintop mining permits.
But in the five years since the MOU was signed, some of the plans that it outlined haven’t been addressed or have fallen short of expectations, members of the Alliance for Appalachia say. League said the group wants there to be a strong stream protection rule, a strong conductivity rule — rather than the unbinding guidance that’s in place now — a strong selenium rule and a rule that better protects streams from coal ash and other coal waste.
“We think the Obama administration should make this one of his legacies — protecting Appalachian water,” she said. “It’s one of the things he mentioned in his campaign in 2008 — that mountains should not be blown up to get to the coal below — and we want him to follow through on that.”
League said the group was happy to get the meeting with the officials, but she wished the officials from the agencies had been more experienced in dealing with mountaintop removal and water contamination issues. But she said the officials she met with recommended Alliance for Appalachia get on regular conference calls with officials from the EPA and CEQ, so that the conversation over these issues can continue.
During Tuesday’s rally, members of the Alliance for Appalachia tried to deliver a clean water “report card” to the Council of Environmental Quality, which is located across the street from the White House. But members of CEQ refused to come out to accept the report card. Teri Blanton, member of the Alliance for Appalachia who lives in Kentucky, said that it was frustrating that the CEQ wouldn’t accept the group’s report card, especially since members of the CEQ met with Alliance members on Monday.
“We’ve been asking for this for years — even before this administration came in,” she said of the group’s focus on reducing pollution from mining in Appalachia.
CREDIT: Katie Valentine
Jane Branham, a member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards in Southwest Virginia, knows well how much time groups like hers have spent trying to get the federal government to deal with water pollution in Appalachia. This year was her eighth travelling to D.C. to lobby the administration. For her, like for League, the issue of clean water and mountaintop removal mining is personal.
“Twenty-five to 30 percent of my county has been leveled. It looks just like the moon,” she said. “And it was one of the most biodiverse and rich areas in the whole country.”
Appalachian states have been plagued by pollution from mining and other energy development for years, a history of pollution that came to light this year after a chemical spill in West Virginia contaminated water for 300,000 people. That type of spill, West Virginia resident Maria Gunnoe told ThinkProgress in January, happens “all the time” in West Virginia, a state where the chemical and coal industries are key economic drivers.
“The water infrastructure has been polluted, and it’s because of mountaintop removal, underground injection and basically coal production. Period.” Gunnoe said.
Branham said that, even if the administration doesn’t take action on mountaintop removal and the water pollution it causes this year, the Alliance for Appalachia isn’t giving up.
“People are just really really adamant that the Obama administration hear us, meet with us, help us,” she said. “We’re not going to go away. That’s the message.”