Front Porch Blog

Kentucky Surface Water: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Depending on what you have heard about eastern Kentucky, or your own experiences there, you may have different impressions of Appalachian streams around the area. Some may envision picturesque creeks running through green valleys, while others may think of bright orange “streams” running over rip-rock.

Unfortunately, bright orange streams are commonplace in eastern Kentucky. The color is indicative of acid mine drainage, which is characterized by the oxidation of sulfide metals — in Appalachia, the compound is usually iron (II) disulfide, also known as pyrite. Fortunately not all streams in eastern Kentucky are contaminated from coal mining; however, if we do not address the main source of surface water contamination in the area — coal mining — in a few years, there may not be clean streams to protect. We must find better ways to address existing acid mine drainage and other water contamination in the area.

Photo credit: KFTC

Last week, I traveled around eastern Kentucky to meet with some of the volunteers for Appalachian Water Watch, a program created in the spring of 2011 to train and equip coal-impacted citizens to test surface water throughout their community. Through surface water testing around coal mines, citizens become better informed about threats to their water and their health, and are empowered to address water pollution issues.

My first stop was in Benham, Ky., to meet with several members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth who live in the area. Many of them were born in the area, and several have worked as coal miners. They have all worked for many years to protect their communities against threats related to surface mining. While there has been some historical underground mining around Benham and Lynch, the immediate area is currently free of surface mines.

The result of this somewhat unique circumstance in eastern Kentucky is that rivers around Benham and Lynch have unusually high water quality, allowing the two towns to use the local rivers for municipal water. The city of Lynch receives its water from a reservoir supplied by Gap Branch and Looney Creek watersheds, which requires minimal treatment costs. The city of Benham receives its water from Kellioka coal seam to the south of Looney Creek. This source provides economic opportunities through the proposal of a water bottling operation. The water sources for both cities are all located immediately downstream of two proposed surface mines on Looney Ridge, making city-wide water contamination from future mining activities a very real threat.

The mines are proposed by two companies, Nally & Hamilton and A & G Coal Corp., both infamous in the area for disregarding the law and local communities.

Nally & Hamilton is the defendant in Clean Water Act cases brought against them by Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance. The company is responsible for over 17,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, including the submission of repeated, inaccurate data on discharge monitoring reports.

A & G is currently mining the Virginia side of Black Mountain, the highest mountain in Kentucky. The proposed permit would be a continuation of their existing operation. A & G is responsible for the death of a three year old boy in Virginia.

The most immediate concern regarding mining done on Looney Ridge by these companies is contamination of the local surface and ground water supplies that provide water for Benham and Lynch. In particular, the A & G mine will operate and drain into at least two feeder creeks to Looney Creek. The citizens have additional concerns about potential damage done by the two mines to the historical buildings in their towns, as well as detrimental effects from surface mining operations within the viewshed of the historic districts of Benham and Lynch.

In an effort to oppose these permits and protect their water should the permits be approved, local residents have begun testing the water upstream of the drinking water intakes to create a record of data as proof of the current high water quality. The background data will enable citizens to monitor for any changes in water quality if the mines begin operating. Citizens have worked tirelessly to oppose the permits and to secure a “lands unsuitable for mining” designation for land surrounding Benham and Lynch. Currently, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet has declared the petition to be “frivolous” based on the fact that 90% of the land has existing underground permits (many of them no longer active).

Photo credit: KFTC

My next site visit, near Prestonsburg, Ky., indicated what could be in store for Benham and Lynch in the future. A local KFTC member contacted me regarding acid mine drainage along Highway 1428, east of Prestonsburg. When I arrived, we found several seeps flowing into the ditch alongside the highway, draining under the roadway directly into the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. Not only did we find bright orange acid mine drainage, but our water testing indicated a very acidic pH — 3.49 — and a conductivity of 2598 μS/cm.

Conductivity is an indicator of dissolved substances, usually salts and metals, in the water. To put our measurement in perspective, the EPA determined that healthy streams in Central Appalachia should have a conductivity reading less than 500 μS/cm. In contrast, all of the tests we conducted around Benham and Lynch showed normal pH readings between 6 and 9, and conductivity readings under 350 μS/cm. Due to the readings we obtained at this site, we collected samples to test for heavy metals. We are still waiting for the results of the laboratory tests.

The seeps are located below the Stonecrest Golf Course, which is owned by the city of Prestonsburg. The golf course was built on a reclaimed surface mine. At least 8 abandoned mines, some underground, some surface mines, exist within the area of the acid mine drainage. Due to the number of possible sources, and the fact that many of the mines are abandoned, it is difficult to determine who is responsible for the drainage observed.

In Kentucky, the Division of Abandoned Mine Lands receives money from the federal government to address acid mine drainage from abandoned mines that operated prior to 1982 — the year Kentucky received conditional program approval from the Office of Surface Mining Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The Division of Abandoned Mine Lands can also address acid mine drainage from abandoned mines that operated after 1982, using the money available through the bond forfeited by the mining company.

The Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement is responsible for addressing acid mine drainage from active mines, usually through enforcement actions against the offending company. The last situation, which does not seem to have a clear course of action, is acid mine drainage that appears after a mine has completed reclamation and the company has been released from its bond. This situation happens not only in Kentucky, but in nearby communities in Virginia as well.

If The Mountain Top Classic isn't a "higher use", I don't know what is.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 was created to protect the environment and local communities from the detrimental effects of surface mining, as well as underground mining’s surface effects. Under the act, land must be restored “to a condition capable of supporting the uses which it was capable of supporting prior to any mining, or higher or better uses.” In theory, this law requires proper reclamation of mined areas; in practice, enforcing this law on the ground is proving very difficult. Nearly 50 permits were forfeited in Kentucky between January 2007 and May 2010. The Division of Abandoned Mine Lands estimated the difference between the forfeited bond amounts and the cost of reclamation for the sites, calculating a deficit of nearly $13 million. Due to problems like this, the Office of Surface Mining Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has threatened to remove program authority from the state of Kentucky unless improvements are seen.

The simple explanation for problems in reclamation is that proper reclamation costs money — often more money than a company would forfeit by simply abandoning the mine. Companies often “reclaim” surface mined land by planting non-native grasses where hardwood forests once stood, replacing the lost soil with rock overburden, and rebuilding “streams” as piles of rock down steep slopes. Abandoned underground mines are most often responsible not only for acid mine drainage, but also for increased sedimentation in endangered waterways.

The state of Kentucky is poorly prepared to control and enforce coal mining reclamation efforts. Until the state requires bonds that cover the true cost of reclamation, and holds coal companies responsible for the pollution and environmental destruction they create, these companies will continue to destroy the land and communities in the name of economic profit.

A beautiful eastern Kentucky "stream"

There may not be an easy answer to address problems like the acid mine drainage found outside Prestonsburg, but that type of environmental tragedy should prove to us, and to the state of Kentucky, the need to improve environmental compliance in the state. As citizens, we can oppose surface mining permits, especially those as poorly sited as the potential mines above Lynch. We can also take an active part in the reclamation process, making sure that problems are identified and brought to the attention of the state before mine companies are released from responsibility.

The state of Kentucky must understand that its citizens will not turn a blind eye to its failure to protect Kentucky’s land, water and people.

While Erin prefers to be on rivers rather than at a desk, as our Central Appalachian Program Manager she devotes a lot of time delving through data to make it meaningful to others who care about the health of our waterways.


  1. Ash says:

    This was very helpful…thnx XD

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