Many people blame part of the poor water quality in Eastern Kentucky on deposit runoff from strip mines, even reclaimed sites like this one.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This week the Interior Department proposed a new rule for stream protection to reduce the impact of coal mining on surface and groundwater. The proposed rule would protect about 6,500 miles of streams from mining damage, according to a press release.  The mining industry said the proposal was unnecessary and would “destroy coal-mining communities.”

[imgcontainer] [img:destroyed_stream_ky.jpg] [source]Photo via Appalachian Voices[/source] Many people blame part of the poor water quality in Eastern Kentucky on deposit runoff from strip mines, even reclaimed sites like this one. [/imgcontainer]

A lot has happened in the 50 years since Lyndon Johnson brought national attention to rural poverty in Eastern Kentucky. But some things haven’t changed.

Folks still don’t drink the water.

Around the same time Johnson was visiting Appalachia, a small migration was taking place into the headwaters of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador.  Farmers from the coastal region heard there was good land just beneath the Andes highlands along the Napo River. With very little on hand, a small collection of families picked up and moved to what would eventually become the community of Los Rios.  Now, 50 years later, roads and electricity are developing faster than at any other time in the Ecuadoran region’s history.  New schools in the area have access to the internet.  Where evenings used to be dark, electricity is the norm.

Families there though, like in Eastern Kentucky, still worry about the water.

During a recent excursion, a few of us with Kentucky Environmental Foundation, a non-profit organization that tackles environmental health issues across our state, had the opportunity to visit the Red Bird Mission in Clay County, Kentucky.  The mission, established in 1921, serves a tremendously rural population. Local families rely on the mission’s medical and dental clinics, child care facility and educational programs because other services are almost an hour away. When asked what help the community felt was really needed, a common answer came up.  People wanted help getting safe water. Now, after two years of planning and a partnership with the University of Tennessee, the surrounding community has access to a new water kiosk, the community’s first connection to public water.  Folks can pull up, pop a quarter into the pump, and fill enough water containers to get them through the week. 

If you ask families why they don’t drink the water, most in eastern Kentucky will say they don’t feel it’s safe. Some contamination comes from poor septic systems near wells. Another issue no one wants to talk about out loud is that the coal industry may also be a source of the contamination. Cracked water tables can leak acid mine drainage, sulfur, methane and various heavy metals into aquifers previously deemed clean.  Speaking up to protect your health, though, can have larger social ramifications. You just don’t question the coal industry.

[imgcontainer] [img:red-bird-water-kiosk-681×388.jpg] [source]Photo by Kathleen Barry/United Methodist News Service[/source] A clean water kiosk, designed by students from the University of Tennessee, is scheduled to start operation this summer in Clay County, Kentucky. [/imgcontainer]

I volunteer with a Louisville-based organization called MedWater, which serves in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. We partner with communities to install chlorination systems to make water safe from microbial contamination.  Water is collected into a tank from shallow wells and spring boxes and treated using a simple system that breaks salt into chlorine and sodium hydroxide.  While the treated water is free of Giardia and bacteria, we keep hearing concern about potential contamination from other industrial operations.  All of the recent development, the new roads and power, is a result of an expansion of drilling.  They’re afraid, however, that it’s going to come with a cost. Chlorine doesn’t’ treat the byproducts of drilling.

Two communities in two different hemispheres are facing the same challenges. Industry is at their door step, expanding roads, power, and the economy.  And yet worries exist about how it will affect their environment, the air, water, and their health. Ultimately there is little clarity on who will intercede if there is contamination and what they will do if the water is no longer safe to drink.

Open dialogue is critical.  But for some reason, it’s extremely hard to make that happen. In Kentucky, the “Friends of Coal” campaign has done its job dividing communities around any matter related to coal. You’re either for them or against them.  “Don’t like coal? Don’t use electricity.” No one ever wants to be on the outside. Especially if it means you’re going up against a force more powerful than yourself. But what if the question asked is, “Don’t like dirty water?” What’s the answer?

We do have policies in the U.S. to protect health. The Clean Water Act, signed into law in the 1970s by a Republican president, works to ensure that navigable waters of the United States are protected from excessive pollution. Unfortunately, we now have politicians in the same Republican Party who are hard at work to dismantle those protections.

The reach for fossil fuels and energy can have the same influence around the world.  In Ecuador, communities have raised concerns around drilling in the Amazon.  But it has come at a price.  Indigenous environmental activists have been harassed, and one was allegedly murdered for speaking out against drilling in the Yasuni Amazon Reserve, the nation’s most pristine forest. The clash comes between those who live on the land and those that want something out of it. Minerals drive development and create wealth. The link that seems to always be missing is that extracting fossil fuels affects the environment- and in turn- the health of those that live in that environment.

How then do we have a conversation around safe water without ruffling feathers? How can we create open dialogue that is fair and just and addresses the full implications of permitted extractive industries?  The “Friends of Coal” campaign has prevented critical dialogue to address the fact that some folks just cannot drink their water.   When driving 45 minutes to another town to purchase water feels like the easier answer, we need to assess why this has become acceptable.

We in Kentucky are not so different from our friends along the Napo River in Ecuador. We depend on the land for our livelyhoods and sustenance. The question now is, can we do this right? Can we do mineral extraction without harming the air and water that people need to survive? Will communities around extractive sites always bear the brunt?  Can we have a conversation about these concerns without conflict, violence, or backlash from industry or even our own neighbors? This is the work that must be done- coming together to find common ground and solid solutions to make a healthy environment.  Let’s start looking for ways to dismantle derision. That’s something we should all raise a glass of safe water to.  

Deborah Payne is health coordinator at the Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

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