Posts Tagged ‘Health’

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

Mountaintop Removal Promotes Lung Cancer

Friday, October 17th, 2014 - posted by thom

A map from The Human Cost of Coal showing the above-average number of lung cancer deaths per 100,000 people in Central Appalachian Counties.

The body of research linking mountaintop removal mining to lung cancer just got a whole lot stronger.

Using dust samples collected in communities near mountaintop removal mines, a new study conducted by Dr. Sudjit Luanpitpong and other West Virginia University researchers found a direct link between air pollution and tumor growth.

From Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette:

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Six years ago, researchers found a close correlation between living in proximity of mountaintop removal coal mining sites and lung cancer mortality rates, even after adjusting for factors like smoking, poverty, race, etc. That 2008 study is just one of more than 20 studies linking mountaintop removal to health issues in neighboring communities.

While people in Appalachia have been aware of this strong correlation, this new study linking dust from mountaintop removal sites directly to the growth of lung cancer cells is the first of its kind.

“To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said [Dr. Michael Hendryx], a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.”

Hendryx said, “The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies … have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

The coal industry and its allies in Congress have always been eager to dismiss claims that air and water pollution caused by mountaintop removal mining have any link to the high rates of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects, or the decrease in life expectancy that counties with heavy mining have experienced over the past two decades.

Will this study get them to finally change their tune? It’s almost certain it won’t. It will be up to those of us who care about the health of Appalachian communities to raise our voices and simply drown them out.

Click here to learn more about how mountaintop removal impacts health in Appalachia, or visit The Human Cost of Coal on iLoveMountains.org.

Health Research Disregarded in Mountaintop Removal Mine Permitting

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

In both West Virginia and Kentucky this year, federal courts have ruled against groups that believe scientific research into the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on health should be considered by the agencies in charge of issuing permits.

In August, a federal judge for the Southern District of West Virginia sided with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ruled that the agency did not act “arbitrarily” when it issued a permit for a 725-acre mountaintop removal mine in Boone County, W.Va., without considering health impacts. A coalition of environmental groups, including Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch, asserted that research the Corps called “ambiguous” in fact showed a strong link between mountaintop removal and health impacts, such as higher instances of birth defects, cancer and other diseases.

The judge claimed that too many of the studies environmental groups presented as evidence focused on health effects associated with coal in general and made no stated connection to mining discharges in streams below mountaintop removal sites.

The decision echoes a ruling six months ago in Kentucky in a case between the Corps and a coalition led by Earthjustice, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalachian Mountain Advocates over the 756-acre Stacy Branch mine. In that case, the Corps argued it was only responsible for considering the effects of dumping mining debris in streams — not the environmental or health impacts of the entire mining operation. That responsibility, the Corps contends, belongs to state agencies in charge of issuing mountaintop removal permits.

Currently, there is no clear agency tasked with studying or addressing the connection between mountaintop removal and health. Meanwhile, a bill that would place a moratorium on new permits until a federal study into the health impacts of mountaintop removal is completed sits stagnant in Congress.

One Artist’s Experience with Coal Ash

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Caroline Armijo

Editor’s Note: Caroline Armijo began an environmental justice art project after seeing many friends and family die from cancer in her North Carolina community, near one of the state’s largest coal ash impoundments. The Belews Creek coal ash ponds near her community are not among those designated for full cleanup by the recent state coal ash bill. In this excerpt from Armijo’s website, she describes the circumstances that shaped her paper sculpture creation, titled “Gray Matter.” Read the full post at carolinearmijo.com.

In my five years in Washington D.C., I have only known three people with cancer, and only one of those have died. In the last six months alone, I have known five people who have died from my hometown in Stokes County, North Carolina.

[In 2007 the EPA reported that] coal ash gives you a one in fifty chance of getting cancer. Unfortunately, the statistics seem to be much worse at home than estimated in the published reports. When I discussed this with a friend from home, she said that her prayer group included two people with cancer out of four.

Photo by Caroline Armijo

Rolls of collected grave rubbings bound by red stitching give structure to this hollowed-out book. The rubbings were created from the headstones of mixed-media artist Caroline Armijo’s friends and family members, whom she suspects were poisoned by coal ash. Photo by Caroline Armijo.

Maybe I feel so strongly about this after watching my dad’s twin sister, Cheryl, fight a courageous battle against non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She passed away in April 2006, after I moved to D.C. the previous year. I was six hours away from my family. It was one of the hardest things I have ever dealt with.

A couple of years later, her neighbor Jackie, from directly across the street, died of the exact same kind of cancer. They could see each other’s houses from their front windows. Cancer is not contagious. What are the chances of that happening?

I did what I do when I don’t know what else to do. I began working on an art project that ultimately became Gray Matter. I had partially excavated/destroyed the book, Your God Is Too Small, a couple of years ago; it was in two pieces and looked like a couple of capital D’s. I went to the studio, picked up the book, gathered my scalpel (a real surgeon’s knife) and blades, and headed home with all of these lost loved ones in my mind.

The Truth About Coal Ash

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by molly

Click here for an enlarged version

VoiceCoalAshGraphic_OctNov2014

The People’s Climate March: Hope makes a comeback

Saturday, September 27th, 2014 - posted by Maggie Cozens
Approximately 100 Appalachian State University  students traveled to New York for the People's Climate March.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March. Photo by Maggie Cozens.

“I know we’re exhausted; my feet hurt…actually my everything hurts,” said Dave Harman of 350 Boone, as our busload of students headed back toward North Carolina. “But I just wanted to say that this went beyond my wildest expectations. I’m still glowing from today.”

As we slowly wended our way out of Manhattan, tired and feet aching, I found myself struggling to process the overwhelming feeling that pervaded every inch of the nearly 4-mile long procession earlier that day. The feeling saturated every piece of artwork and humble homemade sign, resonated in each drumroll and singing voice, and illuminated the eyes of every one of the 400,000 marchers in attendance. Such was the overpowering feeling of hope at the People’s Climate March.

See more photos from the march.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students took part in Sunday’s march and happily found Appalachia well-represented upon arrival. We could not walk two feet without running into someone carrying a sign calling for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

One of the Appalachian State totems was garnished with a People’s Climate March sign that read “I’m marching for the end of mountaintop removal.” It was one among countless others, and no demographic, environmental or social issue went unrepresented. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, indigenous groups, politicians and celebrities joined together and walked in solidarity. The student section was alight with passionate youth from across the country, eager to roll up their sleeves and build a better future, as bright yellow and orange signs ebulliently bobbed up and down along the sea of marchers like rising suns.

The diversity of the marchers was a beautiful sight to behold, but perhaps more stunning was the common thread running between them. Everyone was united in their confidence to affect change; the understanding that tackling the factors behind climate change — the environmental degradation caused by poorly regulated industries, inadequate government involvement, overconsumption and our growth-obsessed economy — holds the solution to a myriad of interconnected global issues today. It quickly became apparent at the march that climate change is as much a political, social, and cultural issue as it is an environmental one. And that efforts to address the problem could lead to a transformation as expansive as climate change itself.

Later that evening on the bus, Dave mentioned in all his years of activism he had never seen anything like the People’s Climate March. The shift in morale was so strong it was almost palpable. In New York and in every sister march around the world, the air was electrified with hope and faith in the future. This was perhaps no more evident than at 1 p.m., when a moment of silence erupted into an explosion of noise. Every marcher raised their voice in opposition to climate change; shouting for each other, the future, and the planet. Dave remarked that the clamor was hair-raising, a sonic “atomic bomb” filled with promise and power.

After attending Sunday’s march, it is hard to shake that feeling of hope. It is disturbing how lacking it had been beforehand, but its return is beyond welcome and reassuring. In the face of such a daunting and massive problem as climate change, it is easy to throw up your hands in exasperation and become discouraged. But after this weekend we should realize this problem is not insurmountable and, if the numbers are any indication, that no one is fighting it alone.

Click here to submit your comment supporting the EPA’s efforts to act on climate.

To tell the truth

Friday, August 22nd, 2014 - posted by tom
AV's Director of Programs Matt Wasson testifies before Congress

Appalachian Voice’s Director of Programs Matt Wasson testifies before Congress about the burden of mountaintop removal coal mining on Appalachian communities

Last month, our Director of Programs Matt Wasson got the chance to tell a rapt audience in Washington, D.C., that the emperor has no clothes. The audience was the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Environment and the Economy, the reporters in the room, and anyone who happened to be watching on CSPAN.

The majority members of the committee had called the hearing in an attempt to portray federal environmental protections as overly burdensome and to trumpet state efforts to “streamline” them. As Matt described in his testimony, however, the facts for the people living in the Appalachian counties most heavily impacted by mountaintop removal coal mining under the ostensibly watchful eye of state agencies are these:

  • They are 50% more likely to die from cancer than others in Appalachia
  • Their children are 42% more likely to be born with birth defects
  • They have a life expectancy far below the national average and comparable to those in El Salvador and Vietnam.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, picking up on Matt’s revelations, noted the similarly atrocious handling by North Carolina officials — in the absence of any federal rules on coal ash — of the catastrophic Duke Energy coal ash spill in February. In the end, the hearing turned into an indictment of the fallacy that states can be counted on to defend their citizens against the profit-driven vagaries of the coal industry and energy giants like Duke.

And while Matt had a rare opportunity to provide a reality check in the ceremonial milieu of a congressional hearing room, it’s the people living in places like Wise County, Va., Pike County, Ky., and Stokes County, N.C. (the site of Duke’s largest coal ash pond), who know this reality better than anyone. It’s their voices, their courage and their persistence — in combination with technical experts like Matt speaking truth to power — that will ultimately bring about real change in their communities.

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

An activist is born

Monday, August 4th, 2014 - posted by Marissa Wheeler
Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Fend, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Feng, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Last Tuesday, on the first day of the carbon rule hearings at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., I stepped off the Metro full of anticipation for my first-ever public rally for any cause, let alone an environmental one.

I arrived at the Federal Triangle station slightly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings but, following the sounds of live music to the front of the building, I knew upon first glance that I had found my destination.

On the wide semi-circular lawn, children ran with toy replicas of wind turbines. People of many ethnicities and a range of ages stood chatting and putting the finishing touches on colorful posters. A woman and a young musician led a call-and-response demanding “Clean Energy Now.” And on the street, volunteers handed out Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I accepted a Moms Clean Air Force sticker from a helpful volunteer and hunted for more free items to show my support. Meanwhile, inside EPA headquarters, Hannah Wiegard and Jeff Feng from Appalachian Voices presented their testimony on the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and the need to take swift action to combat climate change.

Proudly sporting my “I Love Mountains” button, I was ready to hobnob with other Americans advocating for clean energy and climate action including lawyers, career environmental advocates, interns like me, and citizens who traveled great distances to appear before the EPA and raise their voices in support of cutting carbon pollution.

These are the people I surround myself with at home and at school, but I’ve often felt like somewhat of an imposter in their presence. I can’t talk knowledgeably about “carbon capture and sequestration” like they can. I waste far too much water, paper, gas, food and electricity. And this was my first-ever environmental rally. In these kinds of situations, my insecurities tend to build inside me like guilt and create a sense of otherness in my mind between myself and the people I admire and want to emulate.

But that morning, I felt immediately welcomed into the fold because just being there meant that I was contributing to the cause. Building grassroots support and demonstrating the power of people mark the beginnings of social and legislative change, as rally speakers such as Green Latino President Mark Magaña and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus impressed upon the crowd.

For me, catching the spirit and optimism of the rally has given greater clarity to both a collective vision of a clean energy future and what I can do as an individual to help us get there. It’s one thing to wear the pins and stickers; it’s another thing to feel empowered by your peers to take action and work toward a common goal. This sense of belonging is the most valuable thing I’ll take with me from the rally. The free sunglasses are pretty cool, too.

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

[[Take action today - tell the Obama administration to get serious about protecting Appalachia's waters!]]

A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:

“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”

The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.

But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.

Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).

This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.

One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.

Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:

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In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.

It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.

The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.

Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.

Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:

“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.

The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.

Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.