EPA Visits Mountain(top Removal) In Kentucky

Written by Amanda Starbuck

Topics: Coal

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Hazard, KY. Flight provided by SouthWings

On Tuesday I went to the town of Hazard in Perry County,  Kentucky.

It’s a surreal-looking place, if you get up out of the valley onto any viewpoint the panorama that should be rolling hills stretching into the horizon, is missing something. The hill tops have disappeared.  It’s as if the landscape is a jigsaw puzzle missing some vital pieces.

This is because over 20% of the surface of the entire county has been strip-mined for coal.

My viewpoint is excellent as I am taken up into the sky by SouthWings to get an aerial perspective. In the small plane with me is Stanley Meiburg, Regional Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Chris Thomas, EPA and Rick Handshoe, KFTC measure stream conductivity

After the short flight, Stanley and other EPA staff meet with local community members, who have been brought together by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. They share their experiences of living with the impacts of mountaintop removal (MTR) mining: John shares the scientific results of testing the water from the creek by his home and asks how permits can be issued when the water quality is already degraded, McKinley speaks of his family’s water supply “running black”.

The EPA staff talk about how their approach to mine permitting is changing, particularly the way that they communicate and coordinate with the many other federal and state agencies involved in regulating the coal industry’s practices.

After lunch, we head out to the community of Handshoe in Floyd County to see a stream where there has not been any surface mining, we stop there briefly to do a conductivity test using Rick Handshoe’s conductivity meter. The meter reading tells us the stream’s conductivity level is over 600 microSiemens per centimeter. Rick tells us this is double the reading he took two days previously and I become nervous for the future of the minnows in this stream. (The EPA recently identified a conductivity benchmark of 300 microSiemens per centimeter that protects 95% of the genera of aquatic organisms living in streams in central Appalachia.)

We walk up the valley and take conductivity readings on several tributary streams. Alarmingly, one of them has a conductivity reading higher than the upper limit of Rick’s meter. There are no minnows swimming here, only a dead crawfish.

We check out the Raccoon Creek settlement pond, which has been a cause of concern to the community for a number of years.

Our final destination of the day is a valley fill, with a stream running at the bottom. This stream runs orange and black and the conductivity level again reads over the meter’s range.

It’s been an eye-opening day for me.  I’m curious to know what impact the day has had on the EPA staff.

The mountain community members appreciated the visit and being able to show first-hand the water degradation, flood risk and pollution.  These situations that they have been talking, writing and protesting about, to the EPA staff who have the authority to act, and stop mountaintop removal mining companies from treating the waterways  and communities of Appalachia as a dumping ground.

4 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Becky says:

    Sounds like an amazing, concerning and productive day – my stomach sank to hear those high conductivity readings. Thanks for sharing this Amanda.

  2. Jenn says:

    So happy to hear Stanley Meiburg is making MTR a priority. Now what’s going to change at the EPA when it comes to these mountains remains to be seen. I hope for the best- that the life of an American mountain is never in question again. Do you think this visit will change decision making at the EPA?

  3. Amanda says:

    Becky, Jenn: Thanks for your comments. Will the visit change decision making at the EPA? That’s hard to say and time will tell.

    We certainly hope to see continued change at the EPA and that agency taking the toughest stance on MTR. We also need to see change in all the different agencies tasked with regulating this forming of mining – and there are many of those.

    An issue that kept coming up in conversations during the visit was the division of enforcement responsibility between the EPA and the Kentucky state environmental agency.

    Our friends at Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, along with other environmental groups, earlier this year petitioned the EPA to take primary responsibility for enforcing the water discharge permits issued to MTR coal companies. On Tuesday, many community members repeated this request.


    The EPA staff said that they have seen improved coordination between different agencies at the policy level.

    It seems that there is still some way to go for this new spirit of collaboration to completely ‘trickle down’ to all the different agency staff who work on the ground monitoring and enforcing water discharge permits in the mountain communities – there were very mixed reports about how this is going.

  4. Kim says:

    My father is from South Eastern Kentucky (Floyd County), and I still have allot of family there. Strip mining has been a big concern for them for years. Everyones water supply comes out of those mountains. My greatest hope is that everyones eyes are open now to these dangers and they will consider the future of the people that live there.
    Kentucky is a beautiful state and if we need coal that bad then maybe they should open the old mines that have been shut down putting 1/2 the people in those areas out of work. The environmental inpact is minimal and the mountains and all there wildlife can survive.

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