Clean water is a necessity of life. We all need it — businesses, industries and citizens alike.
A business or industry will not be successful in a town if there is not clean water for its employees. Citizens will not live long in any location if they do not have clean water. This essential truth is one of the fundamental reasons Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972. The Clean Water Act also resulted in the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Now, 40 years later, though much has been accomplished through the provisions of the act, it is still not being fully implemented and enforced by the states, a fact that is readily apparent here in Kentucky.
Surface coal mining provides cheap energy because the coal mining companies can mine the coal with significantly fewer workers to pay, and more quickly than in an underground mine. In short: fewer employees, fewer costs and more profits.
It has long been known that surface mining methods cause substantial harm to aquatic life, and that has been affirmed with more recent research. Waterways continue to degrade in the areas of Eastern Kentucky that have been or continue to be heavily surface mined, due in no small part to the common practice of dumping waste into valleys and headwater streams, combined with the general release of extremely harmful pollutants into local streams. In addition, over the last couple years, peer-reviewed scientific research also has indicated that human health is being significantly affected by surface coal mining projects.
I'm a born-and-raised Kentuckian, and this is an extremely frustrating and disheartening reality. We are allowing some of the most poverty-stricken counties in the United States to be the recipients of what may be our present-day version of the burning Cuyahoga River. This is called environmental injustice; it is inconceivable and it is a wakeup call — a call that, if we don't listen, could result in vast areas of Eastern Kentucky ultimately becoming uninhabitable.
The EPA held several public hearings this month on its objections to 36 permits for surface coal-mining companies to release polluted water into waterways of Eastern Kentucky. EPA's objections go against the state's approval of these permits. EPA is fully within its authority granted by the Clean Water Act.
Under the law, discharges by any industries are not permitted to harm the uses of our waters, which include fishing, drinking and recreation. The reality, though, is that for quite some time, coal-mining discharges have violated this provision, and the mining industry must be held to the same standards as every other industry in this nation.
In fact, our state's own evaluations of the streams of Eastern Kentucky have shown that the effects of surface coal-mining operations on local waterways continue to grow.
Coal mining issues are often controversial and divisive. There should be no division on this issue. We are all human, and we all need clean water. Coal mining will remain an energy source for the foreseeable future in this state, so this is not anti-coal. But we are a country with laws enacted over time to protect our freedoms, the public good and the health of our nation, particularly when we are unable individually to protect ourselves.
The surface coal-mining industry must meet these laws, and care equally as much about the local populations and environment as it does about the resources that the industry is extracting from the land.