Take a look at a glass of water from a tap in an Eastern Kentucky mining community and you might wonder if it's safe to drink. Sometimes it comes out with an orange hue, but even when it's clear, residents don't always trust it. Many of them know that scientific research has shown the closer you live to a mine, the higher your risk of cancer.
The strange thing is that Kentucky public officials don't seem to be concerned about this at all. In fact, they sued the Environmental Protection Agency — the federal regulatory body put in place to protect the nation's public health — when it recommended that mining permits include a measurement of conductivity, a method to measure water contamination and ensure that our watersheds are healthy.
On Tuesday and Thursday, the EPA will hold hearings in Frankfort and Pikeville to hear concerns about the denial of 36 surface mining permits in Eastern Kentucky that did not include these conductivity standards. Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA holds the authority to ensure that states are taking appropriate steps to protect our streams and rivers. While some have argued that we should be more concerned about jobs than aquatic life, the reality is that water quality serves as an indicator of human health: the poorer the water quality, the poorer the health of a community.
The results of these hearings will likely have a significant impact on future permits for coal mining operations. Not only will these hearings impact the 36 permits currently being considered, but they will also set the stage for how the next general permit in Kentucky will be written in 2014 — a big issue for the state and the coal industry, not to mention for the water quality and public health of Appalachia.
The conversation around coal mining in Kentucky is sensitive. Individuals are concerned about access to jobs in areas where unemployment rates reach more than 15 percent. But the reality is that surface mining does not bring with it a boom in jobs. Instead, it reduces employment rates in Appalachia, while also forcing mountain communities to bear other economic burdens. In a region fighting some of the highest poverty rates in the country, exorbitant health care costs for the treatment of increased cancers and birth defects is simply unfair.
The citizens of Kentucky are the state's most valuable resource. It's time for our legislators to start acknowledging the true costs of coal and look for ways to mitigate them, not deny them. Allowing the EPA to do its job by preventing the pollution that contaminates our watersheds — and ultimately damages our personal health and welfare — is a good first step.