Eastern Kentucky river faces threat from proposed surface mine, groups say

The Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River in Eastern Kentucky has some of the best whitewater rapids in the Southeast, drawing kayakers from around the world for some events.
The Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River in Eastern Kentucky has some of the best whitewater rapids in the Southeast, drawing kayakers from around the world for some events. Photo by Gareth Tate courtesy of Appalachian Voices

A river in far Eastern Kentucky that has great tourism benefits faces the potential of increased pollution from a proposed mountaintop surface mine, according to advocacy groups.

American Rivers included the Russell Fork of the Big Sandy River on its 2016 list of the 10 most endangered rivers in the nation, which was released this week.

The Russell Fork, which flows from Virginia into Kentucky, cuts through the deepest gorge in the Eastern U.S, often called the Grand Canyon of the South.

The river and gorge are the focal attractions of Breaks Interstate Park, which is in Pike County and Dickenson County, Va.

There were more than 340,000 visitors to the park last year, making it a significant piece of the area economy.

The park has an economic impact of nearly $10 million in southeast Kentucky and the neighboring area of Virginia, American Rivers said.

The group issues a list of endangered rivers each year to draw attention to what it sees as threats.

It included the Russell Fork this year because of Paramont Coal Company’s pending permit for a large surface mine upstream in Virginia.

Runoff from the proposed Doe Branch mine, which would cover more than 800 acres, would drain into tributaries of the Russell Fork.

The mine would likely discharge pollutants such as iron, sulfates, sediment and selenium into the river, according to American Rivers.

Advocates argue the mine would be a risk to the Russell Fork’s water quality and tourism potential at a time when communities are looking to tourism to diversify the economy as coal jobs diminish.

“The coal industry is in decline, while the economic value of an intact and healthy Russell Fork River continues to grow,” Jessie Thomas-Blate, of American Rivers, said in a news release.

A group called Appalachian Voices has joined American Rivers in opposing the permit for the Doe Branch mine.

Appalachian Voices nominated the Russell Fork for American Rivers’ list.

Tarence Ray, Central Appalachian field coordinator for the group, said the river is a key tourism attraction.

“It’s important that we preserve this natural resource for the economic sustainability of communities in eastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia that rely on the river for tourism, recreation and jobs,” Ray said.

The river has some of the best rapids in the southeastern U.S., attracting kayakers from around the world.

“It’s a worldwide attraction,” said Steve Ruth, adventure tourism liaison for Elkhorn City.

Paramont is a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. The company is in bankruptcy.

Some opponents of the Doe Branch mine have raised a concern that the company would not have the financial resources to properly reclaim the site.

There has been significant surface mining in the headwaters of the Russell Fork going back decades.

Opponents of the Doe Branch mine want Virginia officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject permits for it.

EPA said in 2012 that the mine could contribute to water-quality concerns.

Virginia regulators said last year that they had revised the draft permit in response to EPA’s objection.

The regulators said any runoff from the mine would have to meet state and federal water-quality rules, and that the state would require Paramont to post the required bond to reclaim the mine.

Alpha Natural Resources said the mine, which would be part of the proposed Coalfields Expressway, is not in the company’s 10-year plan.

If the mine goes forward, permits would include safeguards on water quality, the company said.