Seeking clean water in coal country

September 15, 2009


By Kendra Langdon Juskus

Most of us probably don’t think to thank God for our clean water every day. We assume that we can take clean water for granted in the United States. But in coal country, along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, clean water isn’t a given.

The environmental and communal devastation occurring in the coal country seems to be one of the nation’s best kept secrets, considering the tepid attention it gets from the mainstream news media. But yesterday’s New York Times featured a haunting video focused on coal mining’s pollution of drinking water and its effects one family in West Virginia. That family, the Hall-Masseys of Charleston, experiences frequent skin and dental damage because of the quality of its water, and has seen the passing of an alarming number of neighbors due to brain tumors.

A very comprehensive article on polluters’ evasion of the requirements of the Clean Water Act accompanies the video. It’s part of a series on how a standard that we take for granted, that of clean water, can be elusive even in a country like the United States:

“In the last five years alone, chemical factories, manufacturing plants and other workplaces have violated water pollution laws more than half a million times. The violations range from failing to report emissions to dumping toxins at concentrations regulators say might contribute to cancer, birth defects and other illnesses.”

Some of those toxins, found even in the drinking water of the Hall-Masseys, include arsenic, barium, lead, and manganese–chemicals usually associated with the insignia of a skull and crossbones, and certainly not intended for consumption. Coal companies often inject toxic solutions containing these chemicals into the ground surrounding mines, or simply dump them into lagoons in the mountains.

Perhaps most shameful is the witting neglect of clean water laws on the part of both polluters and regulators:

“As required by state law, some of the companies had disclosed in reports to regulators that they were pumping into the ground illegal concentrations of chemicals — the same pollutants that flowed from residents’ taps.”

Even when violations are reported, officials are often too under-resourced or over-bureaucratized to address them, or they are influenced by interest groups to look the other way.

And this pollution, evasion, and lack of enforcement is not limited to Appalachia, though the pollution sources may be different elsewhere: “That research shows that an estimated one in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet a federal health benchmark in other ways.”

A national database of water pollution violations, compiled by The Times, is available on the newspaper’s website. It is more comprehensive than those kept by individual states or the Environmental Protection Agency, and through it I discovered that my local city sanitation department has four violations under its belt, a few of which have involved the release of fecal bacteria and cyanide.

I can react to this information in two different ways: with fear for what might be in my drinking water, or with hope for what can be done with this knowledge. Armed with this new awareness, I can join the Hall-Masseys from West Virginia, and families from all over the country, in fighting to stop pollution and to bring polluters to justice, as my brothers and sisters at Christians for the Mountains have been doing in Appalachia since 2005.

Most importantly, I can start thanking God for the clean water I do have, since it is certainly not a given.

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