Mary Anne Hitt
Mary Anne Hitt, former executive director of Appalachian Voices, The Ecology Center and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, is now deputy director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign.
Mary Anne Hitt, former executive director of Appalachian Voices, The Ecology Center and the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, is now deputy director of the Sierra Club’s National Coal Campaign. She lives in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
When I was a girl growing up in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee, my sister and I would spend endless hours on the rivers – the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon, the French Broad, the Little River – swimming, fishing, tubing and doing nothing in particular. Those rivers not only kept us busy and out of trouble, but they also instilled in us a deep love of our mountain home.
The only dangerous thing about the rivers in those days was the occasional piece of broken glass or rusted metal lurking on the bottom. I never understood why some neighbors used the streams as their personal dumping ground for old appliances, bottles and cans, but we joined other neighbors in hauling the trash out of the river.
As the years went by, people took more pride in our environment, and we found less trash in the rivers. When it comes down to it, everyone knows you’re not supposed to throw garbage in the river.
That is why, all these years later, I cannot fathom how we as a nation continue to allow mining companies to dump billions of tons of their waste rock into the rivers and streams of Appalachia.
About five percent of America’s electricity is being generated by coal mined from mountaintop removal operations in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. The coal companies blow up each mountain until they reach a coal seam, and with the leftover rock, they do the same thing some of my neighbors did, on an infinitely grander scale – they shove the mining waste off into the valleys. To date, more than 1,500 miles of Appalachian streams have been forever buried in massive valley fills, and 475 mountains have been leveled.
In early December 2008, the Bush Administration quietly dismantled one of the last remaining laws protecting Appalachia’s streams and rivers from becoming waste dumps for mining companies. They gutted a regulation known as the buffer zone rule, which originally prohibited mining activity (including the dumping of waste) within 100 feet of a stream.
In justifying their decision, one senior Bush Administration official told The Washington Post that the rule change “will not be a negative environmental impact” because many of the streams that will be buried are small. The official continued, “You’re not talking about big, ecologically valuable areas.”
This official could not be more wrong. When it comes to clean water, small streams are where all the action is. These headwater streams are where most of the important ecological processes that clean our water take place. Study after study has shown that healthy headwater streams are critical to water quality and healthy fish habitat far downstream. Scientists have also found that the valley fills left behind increase flooding and are sources of pollution, including habitat-choking sediment and toxic heavy metals, for decades to come.
The lesson I learned in my childhood should apply to mining companies just as it applies to my neighbors. Our new president has the opportunity to restore some of these basic protections. It is up to each one of us to get involved and ensure that our children will inherit mountain streams as clean and healthy as those our parents handed down to us.