Coal communities will suffer because Congress repealed protections for water

Surface mining near the town of Chavies in Perry County in 2007.
Surface mining near the town of Chavies in Perry County in 2007. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

Republicans and some Democrats in Congress voted this week to repeal the Stream Protection Rule that took effect last month.

News articles quickly circulated online about the action, followed by social media posts and comments from people who were uneducated about the facts. I have yet to see any news source share pertinent data about the effects on the coal industry and the citizens of coal communities. As a former coal miner and family member to many in the coalfields who not only seek employment but also desire to have healthy living standards, I feel it is my duty to share as many details as possible with the public.

It is important to know that in 1972 the Clean Water Act was put in place to address and control water pollution. The CWA established basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into the waters of the United States. It also gave the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to implement pollution-control programs for industries, not only the coal industry. States are required to insure that these standards are being followed and that industry maintains clean waterways through the proper research and testing. States are encouraged to work with federal agencies to meet these standards and insure clean water for a higher quality of life in affected communities.

This sounds great, however, the states were not doing their job. The industries were not being held accountable. I can attest to my experience living in a coal community for more than 30 years. Many families still drink well water, which is drawn from the underground water table. The closer these wells are located to mining, the higher the levels of contamination. We are not discussing rock or dirt being moved back to its original location. We are not discussing rock blocking a stream or as one commenter suggested “any area that two droplets meet and form a single trail of water twice a year.” We are discussing long-term effects from the use of explosives and chemicals and also the disruption and burial of freshwater streams. We are talking about profound effects on people, land and water quality.

The Stream Protection Rule, which the Department of the Interior worked on for years and scheduled to go into effect last month, was meant to provide more comprehensive and detailed regulation, specific to the coal industry. It set rules to determine when mining-related effects on groundwater and surface water reached unacceptable levels, through research and trials conducted by multiple agencies. It required adequate pre-mining data to determine a comprehensive baseline on which to determine the effects of mining on that area. It required effective monitoring during and after the mining reclamation process to properly assess the effects on water quality. The rule promoted the protection or the restoration of perennial and intermittent streams, especially headwater streams. The rule required restoration of the land so that after the mining process the land was capable of supporting the same uses as before mining.

This rule was written to hold the mining industry accountable because the states were not holding coal companies accountable for protecting clean and safe drinking water for coalfield communities. The corporations that make decisions affecting the future livability of coal communities are headquartered in distant cities. When the minerals are gone or the market changes, the corporations are not left behind with the effects of the mining. It is only fair that they be held responsible for taking care of the land, water and the people in the communities they are mining.

Do I want to see coal jobs return? Yes, if the industry will insure that the lives of the people in these communities are valued and the resources they rely on protected.

The Stream Protection Rule had no role in the decline of the industry in the past 10 years. The rule did not go into effect until two weeks ago. Its repeal is not going to bring back coal jobs. If it saves the company profits and makes mining permits more accessible for 2017, it will be at the expense of the people living near the mining.

It is unfortunate that we were let down by our state government for so many years and now our federal government has also chosen the corporations over the people.

Gary Bentley of Lexington is a former coal miner and a Whitesburg native. Reach him at garybbentley@gmail.com.