Energy Hogs Responsible For Degraded U.S. Rivers

A new report by the environmental group American Rivers highlights the impact that energy production has on our nation’s rivers. Nearly half of the 13 waters on the group’s 2001 “Most Endangered Rivers” list are in trouble from the effects of hydropower dams, mining, coal burning, and contamination from producing parts of the nation’s energy grid.

Three of the 13 most endangered rivers are right here in southern Appalachia: Paine Run, a stream in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park that suffers from acid rain; the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River on the Kentucky/West Virginia border, which is still reeling from a huge coal sludge spill last year; and the heavily developed watershed of the Catawba River in North and South Carolina.

The report says further damage to rivers across the country could be reduced or avoided by increasing energy efficiency, producing conventional energy more responsibly, and expanding the supply of clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar. But consumers must take some of the responsibility by reducing their use of electricity and fossil fuels, it said.

“The rivers on this year’s list demonstrate how damming, drilling, digging and burning to produce energy pollute drinking water, deny the public recreational opportunities, and drive river wildlife to extinction,” said Rebecca Wodder, president of American Rivers. “The administration and some members of Congress have proposed stopgap measures to increase domestic energy production which will exacerbate these problems without resulting in long-term solutions.”

The Top 5 most endangered rivers were: the Missouri River, which fluctuates wildly to serve the barging industry; the Canning River in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, threatened with oil drilling by the Bush administration; California’s Eel River, which loses 90% of its flow to water diversions for hydropower and agriculture; New York’s Hudson River, contaminated by toxic PCBs from electrical transformer production; and the Powder River in Wyoming and Montana, which is imperiled by coal bed methane mining.

The Tug Fork of the Big Sandy led the list of endangered rivers in our region, coming in at # 7. Last October, a mine shaft beneath a slurry impoundment owned by Martin County Coal Company collapsed, releasing a wave of coal sludge into the Tug Fork. The spill contaminated domestic and industrial water supplies and suffocated aquatic life under an oozing blanket of slurry (a mixture of water, mud, and coal waste.)

The Environmental Protection Agency called the spill one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the Southeast. Though Martin County Coal began removing sludge in the upper tributaries, the Tug Fork still hasn’t been cleaned up. American Rivers and other groups are urging KY legislators to place a moratorium on new slurry impoundments until government agencies can review coal slurry disposal methods.

“Slurry impoundments at the top of mountains riddled with underground mines are disasters waiting to happen,” said Judy Peterson, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance.

Paine Run came in #11 on the “Most Endangered” list. The stream and its neighbors in Shenandoah National Park are known nationwide as some of the finest native brook trout habitat in the country, drawing anglers from around the U.S. But the park is the second most polluted in the U.S., because it is downwind from numerous coal-fired power plants in the Ohio and Tennessee river valleys (many of which are old facilities that were exempted from the 1990 Clean Air Act.)

These plants emit tremendous amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which are transformed into acids in the atmosphere and return to the surface as acid rain, snow, mist, or fog. Paine Run once held as many as eight different fish species, but now is home to just three. A recent study by the University of Virginia found that 6% of 304 trout streams are now too acidic to host reproducing populations of brook trout; by 2041, that number will jump to 22% if sulfur dioxide emissions are not cut by 70% from 1991 levels.

“Despite the fact that they are miles away from any major pollution source, mountain streams in the East are getting pounded by high doses of acid rain,” said Leon Szeptycki, eastern conservation director for Trout Unlimited. “Paine Run is representative of all eastern streams affected by acid rain.”

Explosive urban growth threatens to overwhelm the Catawba River’s capacity to provide drinking water, assimilate sewage, support wildlife, and serve recreational needs. Reservoirs along the Catawba provide drinking water for much of North Carolina, but cities and industries hold permits to discharge more than 175 milion gallons of treated sewage into the watershed daily — that number is expected to double in the next 10 years. Sprawl is eating up land at the rate of 40 acres per day, dumping polluted runoff into the river.

“Hopefully, this listing will serve as a wake-up call to North and South Carolina to take steps to protect the river for the next generation,” said Donna Lisenby, Catawba Riverkeeper. She and other conservationists are particularly concerned about plans by Charlotte-area business interests to install large sewer lines along a 20-mile stretch of the Catawba.

The American Rivers report offers a host of solutions, calling on legislators to rewrite provisions in the Clean Air Act that grandfather old power plants, promote investments in wind and solar power generation through tax breaks and updated building codes, make new coal slurry impoundment permits go through a public notice and comment period, and adopt streamside buffer zones to protect rivers in developed areas.To see the whole report, go to


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