ecology + justice + culture in the american south

Poisoned water, a black lung epidemic, & flash flooding

When I arrived back in Louisville after six days in Eastern Kentucky, I forgot I was allowed to drink water from the faucet. So thirsty, I reached in the fridge for a bottle before I remembered tap water here—just three hours northwest of where I had been—is some of the best in the country.

Even though you can’t drink the water in rural Appalachia, you still bathe in it, wash dishes in it, brush your teeth with it. While doing so for the last week, I considered how little the general public knows about the water crisis that has plagued this region for so long, how most of America is desensitized to it. Overwhelming evidence shows that pollution from coal mines and chemical operations have leaked into the groundwater, soil, and waterways, and their footprint remains.

For instance, two years ago in Letcher County, acid mine drainage spilled into a creek that flows into the North Fork Kentucky River (the heavily polluted Kentucky River serves as amain water source for a sixth of the state’s population). It was just the most recent significant spill in the county that contaminated the river; years of diesel fuel spills have occurred that the state reportedly tried to keep quiet. More recently, two chemicals and known carcinogens—trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which are disinfection byproducts created during the water treatment process when chlorine mixes with organic matter—have been found in Letcher County’s water system. This violation of federal water standards is common across the region. Next door to Letcher is Knott County, where similar water issues have been occurring for decades.

Martin County may be the worst off: Kentucky’s attorney general recently said he will investigate the management of the Martin County Water District because of the long history of water contamination and shortages there, and the massive debt the district is in because of it. Some Perry County residents lost water for nearly a month this winter; the county only recently received some money to bring potable water to 125 homes. Deep in Harlan County, many homes lack sewage or water hookups.

A mountainside in Roxana, Kentucky. Credit: Lyndsey Gilpin

The injustices surrounding drinking water contamination in Flint that came to light several years ago offered a glimpse at a national crisis that has long been ignored. Appalachian communities in Tennessee, North Carolina, and West Virginia have some of the highest rates of drinking water violations, and urban centers like Miami and Richmond have found lead in water fountains and pipes.

Last year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a “D” grade in drinking water infrastructure, reporting that the nation loses about 6 billion gallons of treated water everyday. It’s a $1 trillion problem to fix. There are citizen action groups across Appalachia and around the country working to make sure those in charge are held accountable for doing so, but it’s an uphill battle. Industry representatives are attempting to loosen water quality regulations, local county leaders are trying to abolish water commissions or reduce funding, and water districts are failing to comply with state reporting requirements.

This complex story quickly becomes overwhelming, so it’s often still overlooked. That’s especially true when it comes to Appalachia. Driving this weekend near Roxana, Kentucky, I marveled at a creek that ran alongside a rural mountain road. It was reminiscent of the crystal clear waterways along roads in the Colorado mountains—the ones you can pull over and jump in when you need to cool off in the summer without worrying about what chemicals might be present. Here, people still fish and swim, still find joy in dipping their toes in a creek. But that concern is a constant hum in the background, something they’re always expending their energy on. For as long as they can remember, they’ve had toxic water, and now there’s little trust that agencies or local officials will fix the situation. It makes it easier to see why concerns for plastic pollution or ocean conservation or environmental programs aren’t top priorities for many people. When you’re thirsty, none of that matters. 


Stories worth your time

Amidst a resurgence of black lung disease in central Appalachia, a Government Accountability Office report shows that the federal black lung trust fund—which helps sick and dying coal miners pay medical expenses—could see a $15 billion deficit in the next 30 years. A tax on coal companies supports the fund, NPR explains, but that’s due a 55 percent cut at the end of the year. “Coal operators caused this problem, and they are the ones who should be responsible for funding the compensation these workers receive,” said Cecil Roberts, international president of the United Mine Workers of America.

Residents of Minden, West Virginia are asking the federal government to add their community to the EPA’s list of Superfund sites because they’re concerned the land is still contaminated by PCBs. Inside Appalachia digs into how the town is reckoning with its toxic past and how the dwindling budget for the Superfund program is affecting communities like Minden.

The Intercept reports how toxic drinking water is becoming a hot topic for the midterm elections in places like North Carolina, where people are concerned about GenX pollution.


News flying under the radar

Severe flash flooding in central Virginia last week washed away parts of a neighborhood, leaving some people stranded.

Louisville is getting a new $30 million facility that will capture methane from landfill waste and turn it into natural gas. The company said it will be able to produce enough gas to power up to 14,000 homes a day.

A plan to dam the Pearl River to prevent flooding in Jackson, Mississippi is meeting opposition from people in Louisiana who say it could negatively impact wetlands and communities downstream.

coal miner died after getting injured while working in a West Virginia mine.

A newly installed natural gas pipeline exploded in northern West Virginia, but nobody was hurt. “It’s happened around here before,” said one man who went back to bed after he heard it. “They (also) had a well out there catch fire and it lit up the sky.”

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