It’s really hard to argue against Clean Water. It’s especially difficult to argue against Clean Drinking Water in light of what’s happening to the public in Flint, Michigan. However, that hasn’t stopped Republican members of Congress like Representatives Hardy (R-NV4), Heck (R-NV3), and Amodei (R-NV2) from aligning themselves with those who want to curtail, delay, and ultimately defeat regulations designed to prevent stream contamination in “coal country.”
Easy and Cheap Coal Mining or Clean Drinking Water?
Back in May 2015, opponents of clean water regulations decided to oppose any administration efforts to regulate what mining companies did with the debris from mountain top coal operations:
“Congressional Republicans are seeking to block an imminent rule protecting Appalachian streams from mountaintop removal mining, as opponents of the controversial practice say the mines are getting closer to communities and harming people’s health.
The White House is expected to announce a stricter rule for the disposal of mountaintop-removal mining waste into streams. Some Republicans in Congress are describing the move as the latest campaign in the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” [McClatchy DC] [see also The Hill]
The opposition would go beyond the Reagan Era (1983) regulations which did not allow dumping debris within 100 feet of a river or stream. The coal industry thought it had the system beaten when the George W. Bush administration allowed “waivers” from the rules during the last months of his presidency. [SeattleTimes] The Obama administration promptly rescinded the last minute Bush Gift to the Coal Companies. Coal interests just as promptly hauled out the hyperbole and declared the administration was declaring a War On Coal.
The result of the opposition clamor against allowing mining companies to dump debris into rivers and streams was the STREAM Act. While the act doesn’t allow outright the trashing of American rivers and streams, it does wrap the EPA and Corps of Engineers in endless studies, evaluations of studies, and interminable hurdles to protecting water sources. Representatives Heck, Hardy, and Amodei appear to be marching along with the coal industry. Each voted in favor of the STREAM Act on January 12, 2016. [roll call 42]
Is Anyone Surprised?
The drinking water calamity in Flint, Michigan is a man-made problem. Actions taken to “save money” have obviously proven to exacerbate contamination such that the population of Flint has been exposed to toxic lead levels. We know what lead does – we also know what happens when a state government fails to act swiftly and responsibly to impending disaster.
What happens when creeks are filled with iron and aluminum hydroxides? When streams are polluted with contaminants from mountain top removal coal operations? Three peer reviewed studies in central Appalachia found: (1) An overall increase in the rate of birth defects in counties with mountain top mining; (2) A 14.4% cancer rate compared to non-mountain top mining areas with a 9.4% rate; and (3) a $74.6 billion per year public health expense burden on Appalachian communities. [KFTC pdf] This is not an isolated problem, nor is it new:
Between 1985 and 2001, 6,697 valley fills were approved in Appalachia, covering 83,797 acres of land and potentially affecting 438,472 acres of watershed.20 Valley fills can be as wide as 1,000 feet and over a mile long, and each can contain as much as 250 million cubic yards of wastes and debris—enough to fill almost 78,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Burying fragile headwater streams located in valleys exterminates virtually all forms of life that get interred under millions of tons of waste and debris. From 1985 to 2001, the EPA estimates that valley fills buried 724 miles of streams.22 Another study conducted by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) found that approximately 535 miles of streams were negatively affected by mining from 2001 to 2005.23 All told, nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwaters have been buried or polluted by mountaintop removal, and the damage to Appalachian watercourses has continued at an average rate of 120 miles per year. [NRDC(pdf)]
The track record doesn’t sound promising for those who want to protect their drinking water supplies, and the actions of the pollution protectors aren’t helping. Perhaps Representatives Amodei, Heck, and Hardy, would care to explain why they don’t seem particularly disturbed about higher than normal levels of calcium, magnesium, manganese, sulfate, and selenium in coal country drinking water?
What does this stuff do?
We know that manganese is one of those minerals we need as part of a normal diet, but we also know that high concentrations of manganese isn’t a good thing for children – the young apparently having a greater absorption rate than adults – and that high absorption often correlates to learning disabilities. [WHO pdf] This is a bit more damage than just the brown staining on laundry common to manganese contaminated water, and much more than the toxicity it has for plant life – a burden for farmers downstream. [USGS]
Magnesium is not considered all that dangerous, in correct (normal) levels. There is no “maximum contaminant level” assigned to this mineral. [EHS pdf] However, both magnesium and calcium contribute to what is popularly known as “hard water,” that ever present danger to plumbing, and household appliances such as washing machines and hot water heaters.
Sulfates are another matter. Right off the bat, water containing more than 400 mg/L should NOT be used when preparing infant formula. [MHealth] And, the stuff is corrosive, if the sulfate in the water exceeds 250 mg/L (MCL) copper piping is particularly susceptible to corrosion. [MHealth] Thus leading to copper contamination. Sulfates have what is known politely as a “laxative effect,” which is not all that appealing when combined with the knowledge that sulfates are causing scale build up in the water pipes. [UGA edu pdf] Nor should we diminish the impact of a “laxative effect” on young children and infants for whom diarrhea and dehydration can be quite serious health risks.
Selenium is a real mess. It’s a heavy metal, and the current maximum contaminant level is 0.05 ppm (parts per million). Long term higher-than-normal exposure can (and usually does) result in hair and fingernail loss, damage to the kidneys and liver tissue, as well as damage to the nervous and circulatory system. In other words, it’s truly dangerous. [EPA]
Since much of the more obvious damage appears to be targeted at plumbing, pipes, and appliances, it’s too easy to dismiss the pollutants as mild (compared to the Lost Jobs?) about which the coal industry is concerned. However, there are other contaminants to consider associated with coal mining operations: Acid mine drainage; Coal Slurry, Coal Ash, the ever present bug bear – Selenium, and Total Maximum Daily Loads. [AppV]
And the mountain top removal contribution to the problems? WV public.org reports: “It was pretty obvious to me that below valley fills, water was pretty tainted, and then it became a question of, ‘Is it getting into the human water supply?’” Stout said. “I started sampling people’s houses; some people’s water is really good, other people’s water is really appalling.” Stout has tested for and found water spiked with heavy metals and other contaminants. “Before it’s disturbed it’s as good of water you’re going to find anywhere on the planet. But after that it becomes tainted with heavy metals and bacteria and so forth and becomes unusable, except that these people don’t have any recourse,” Stout said.”
Nor, we might add, do the people of Flint have much recourse.
It’s a plausible argument that Representatives Hardy, Heck, and Amodei, are staunchly defending the exploiters and polluters who are managing a 19th century industry – rather like defending the profits of the buggy whip manufacturers before Ford. Not only is natural gas making headway into the former domains of coal, but both wind and solar assets are increasing as well. As one environmental improvement advocacy group puts it, “Coal is making a long goodbye.”
Representatives Amodei, Heck, and Hardy appear to have both feet firmly planted in an America of the 20th century while we’re a decade into the 21st. When they speak to their “visions” of America, voters might want to remember this point.