Matt Hepler: Charting a Path to Clean Water

By Molly Moore

Photo by Reanna Edwards

Photo by Reanna Edwards

After studying geologic features and data, Matt Hepler maps out a handful of locations in the coal-bearing mountains of southwest Virginia. With a cooler full of empty water bottles, a scientific probe and a pair of waders — just in case — he heads out to monitor water quality in areas impacted by coal mining.

Hepler is the water and enforcement organizer with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a Wise County, Va.-based community and environmental advocacy organization. Often accompanied by interns or area residents, he tests backyard creeks and headwaters of local waterways, looking for dangerous levels of heavy metals and other pollutants. When initial readings are troublesome, he sends a water sample to a lab to find out if the levels of toxicants pose a threat to aquatic or human health. If the waterway is contaminated, he educates area residents about potential dangers.

In the coming years, he hopes to see the base of citizens regularly testing waterways across the region grow. Hepler’s top goal, however, is to ensure that this data shapes sound federal and state environmental policies. If rules such as the Office of Surface Mining’s stream buffer zone are strengthened to protect water quality, he says, it will greatly reduce the destruction caused by surface mining.

27 Visionaries


27 Visionaries

Having grown up in the mountains of Bath County, Va., Hepler prizes the rural lifestyle and is also a member of the RReNEW Collective, a group that facilitates the placement of volunteers with justice-oriented organizations in coal-dependent Virginia counties.

When it comes to advice for the next crop of activists, Hepler speaks from his experiences with court cases and government agencies: “Learn to be very patient because change takes a really long time.” But Hepler is not idly waiting to see problems in his community improve — with each water sample or citizens’ rights workshop, he’s bringing that change a little closer to reality.

To learn about regional water monitoring, visit Find more information about Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards at and the RReNEW Collective at

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