Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Stream protection, pork production, & poetry as medicine

Teri Blanton grew up in a holler on the banks of the Cumberland River, near a superfund site in Harlan County, Kentucky. More than two decades ago, she moved her family to Berea to keep them far from what she says are toxic streams and soil. Blanton has since become an activist with environmental organizations in Appalachia, testing water for communities and frequently protesting mountaintop removal mining.

​When the Stream Protection Rule was signed into law by Barack Obama at the end of December, Blanton and others in Appalachian communities breathed a small sigh of relief. “We were waiting on that new rule through the entire last administration,” Blanton said. But then, last week, it was overturned by Congress and is headed to President Trump’s desk for a signature.

Last year’s Stream Protection Rule was a long time coming: In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act ruled that companies should not cause material damage to the environment if it’s economically and technologically feasible, which left a lot of room for interpretation. In 1983, a “stream buffer rule” was added, which required a 100-foot buffer zone between mining impacts and streams. Coal companies and states interpreted that law differently as well. It’s estimated that coal spoil, or waste, has buried nearly 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia.

The 2016 rule required coal companies to gather background data about the land and groundwater before starting a mining operation — a baseline assessment that many weren’t doing before. There were also stricter reclamation requirements to restore the land after mining operations were finished, and new restrictions on dumping mining runoff into surrounding ecosystems. It wasn’t strong enough for many environmentalists, but it was better than the 1983 ruling. According to Erin Savage, Central Appalachian program manager for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, the stream protection rule was also helpful for people who sue coal companies for soil or water contamination. It was often their word against powerful companies and attorneys. With the new regulation, they would have a better chance of winning court cases, she said, because they could rely on hard data.

Since it was in effect for less than two months, there weren’t tangible results. But Savage said she didn’t expect it to take long to slow down the 2017 mining permits because of the time it takes to gather data. “People like to say mountaintop removal mining is over, but that’s not true,” she said. As of last week, she was handling permits for Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky. However, the organization is trying to change the narrative that getting rid of this rule will bring back coal, as some lawmakers have touted.

Blanton said the fact the overturning of this rule fees like “more of the same,” of what communities have dealt with for decades. For now, organizations are trying to stay ahead of the administration and focus on building stronger relationships with state agencies to enforce the Clean Water Act and other surface mining regulations. Many are left wondering what’s going to happen next. “It’s a turning point,” Savage said, “but where we’re turning, I’m not quite sure.”

Stories worth your time

WVTF Public Radio out of Southwest Virginia has a five-part series on the impacts of pork on the environment, public health, and the animals. It traces the consolidation of hog farms in the region, following Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork. Here’s what the company’s chief sustainability officer said about waste treatment on those farms: “The manure goes into lagoons. Then the material there is applied on crops according to permits issued by the state, and it’s actually very scientific. The folks who manage those farms have data and laptops. They go out, and they see what crops are on those farms. They know exactly what’s supposed to be applied, and no more, no less. They’re not applied during rainstorms, so there’s a lot of science to it actually.”

There are now twice as many solar jobs in coal jobs in the U.S. According to a new survey from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry now employs 260,000 people. South Carolina has one of the fastest growing industries, the report says, gaining1,008 new jobs last year. That’s a 57 percent increase.

A lovely essay by Win Bassett on his stint as a chaplain in a Virginia hospital, where he wrestled with the idea of poetry as a necessary medicine for the dying, their families, and himself. “The patients don’t know the poems I carry in my pocket the way they know their hymns, but they quiet nonetheless,” Bassett writes. “I chalk up these powers to poetry’s economy of words. When you know you don’t have much longer in this life, why not make every word you speak and hear pack as much meaning as possible?”

News flying under the radar

A new Virginia bill would allow victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants to sue the sanctuary cities where the crimes are committed. It was introduced after the mayor of Charlottesville announced he was trying to make it a sanctuary city; several other communities in Virginia have sanctuary-like policies.

A well-known white nationalist party called the Traditionalist Worker Party, along with the Nationalist Socialist Movement and Nationalist Front Movement, plan to host an event and conference at a Pikeville, Kentucky park in April. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group is allied with neo-Nazi organizations. Since the announcement, there has been an outcry on social media, with people pushing the governor and legislators to address it.

In Uniontown, Alabama, there has been a long fight over the location of a coal ash landfill. The landfill company filed a $30 million defamation lawsuit against four residents who spoke out against the landfill, and the ACLU defended them, citing systemic racial and environmental injustice since Uniontown is 91 percent black. Now, the case is settled, and the company had to drop the suit, post notices about hazardous waste, and comply with EPA standards.

Remember last week, when I mentioned environmental groups in North Carolina were trying to block liquid nuclear waste shipments from Canada? A judge ruled against them.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved a $4.3 billion pipeline, the Rover Pipeline, that will send shale natural gas from Virginia to Michigan. It is owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the same company that manages the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. And while we’re talking about pipelines: The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which runs natural gas through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina, is apparently high up on the Trump administration’s list of infrastructure projects.