Elaine Tanner and her partner Jimmy Hall have both experienced, up close and personal, the destruction caused by mountaintop removal coal mining. The Kentucky natives are fighting a coal company they claim poisoned their well water. One of the company's mountaintop removal sites is right next to their home in Letcher County.
"They destroyed our water," said Jimmy. "The Kentucky Department of Water tested the water of many wells in our area and found a toxic soup. They said the water was unfit to touch and could only be used for flushing the toilet. But the state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement (DMRE) had knowledge of this and still said the water was safe to use, just filter it to drink. So now we have people in our town with cancer, heart disease, and skin and organ issues."
The mining has blown away their land over the years, too. The property, which has been in Jimmy's family for more than 200 years, went from 250 acres down to 134 acres thanks to a coal company that leased it out from under their family when an uncle passed away. The two also are living in Ohio because they cannot drink the water at their home in Kentucky.
Jimmy and Elaine joined more than 100 other Appalachian residents in Washington, D.C., this week to tell their members of Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that mountaintop removal coal mining must end.
"The water is poison and I came to D.C. to see if the federal government will do what the local, state, and regional governments have failed to do - which is to bring us an emergency supply of water for the 100 families in my community," says Jimmy.
The photo to the left and below shows some of Appalachian activists sitting outside of the EPA offices with jugs of water from their home taps that showing contamination by mountaintop removal coal mining.
Elaine says she and Jimmy filed a Safe Water Drinking Act request for relief in February and just got to show EPA on Monday the request and permit documents showing that mining company Consol Energy is responsible for providing emergency drinking water within 10 days and a permanent supply to her community within a year.
The process has been a long, tiresome journey. Jimmy says it took the state around 10 years to test their water, and Elaine says not much has been done since then.
"It's been over a year since our water tested to contain 17 times more arsenic than allowed. Some families have had no choice but to take the chance and use this toxic water in the meantime," Elaine says. "We plan on coming back until the destruction of our mountains has ceased," says Elaine.
Jimmy and Elaine are not alone. All across Appalachia, people are fighting coal companies who are destroying the region's land and water with mountaintop-removal coal mining. These families are tired of waiting for action from their legislators, most of whom are beholden to the King Coal because of the industry's deep pockets.
However, in spite of the powerful forces aligned against them, local residents are still winning victories, In Virginia this week, residents of the town of Appalachia celebrated a victory when the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a surface mine permit for the Ison Rock Ridge mine in southwest Virginia.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., wrote about Ison Rock Ridge in the Washington Post back in 2009, when the Obama Administration first took office and was weighing its approach to mountaintop removal. In the intervening four years, while the EPA has taken some actions that have slowed the clip of mountaintop removal, mountains are still being blown up, streams are still being buried, families are still suffering from polluted air and water, and states are not adequately enforcing the law. We applaud the recent Ison Rock Ridge decision, and we call on the EPA to do more to protect other communities, mountains, and public health.
The Sierra Club proudly stands with these Appalachian residents in the fight for clean water and clean air. We work with great local organizations and coalitions, as well as nationally, to petition government at all levels to end mountaintop removal coal mining.
"Every day this goes on, our folks are in danger," says Jimmy.
Photos courtesy of the Delaware Sierra Club.