By Sarah Caldwell
Appalachian Water Watch intern, Summer 2014
The Appalachian Water Watch team is proud to announce a newly improved ace-project.org – the website of the Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project.
The upgrades to the website will not only help the efforts of our citizen scientists, they will provide transparency for our water quality monitoring processes. In order to explain the importance of these new additions, a little background is necessary, and that starts with the inception of the Clean Water Act.
In 1972, amendments to and revisions of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act produced what we know as the Clean Water Act (CWA). One of these revisions was the installment of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which regulates discharges of pollution into public waters. The original goal of this system was to eliminate all pollution of U.S. waters by 1985. While that obviously failed, progress has been made, partially due to the increased amount of citizen involvement in the enforcement process.
For the coal industry, NPDES permits stipulate condition such as which waterways receive pollutant discharge, the amount of pollutant allowed, and how frequently monitoring occurs. Companies are charged with the duty of self-monitoring their own pollution levels in discharge monitoring reports (DMRs). DMRs are submitted to a state regulatory agency where they become available to the public. Coal companies are legally required to report when they exceed pollutant limits and fix the problem. The drawback with this system is that self-regulation allows companies to manipulate and even falsify their own data to avoid violations and fines. Because of this, citizen involvement and water testing is crucial.
Citizen water quality testing is an effective way of keeping large companies in check, and is possible due to Section 505 of the CWA, which allows for citizen legal action if they have been affected by water pollution. While this is a good concept, there was once a missing link between the desire to regulate these companies and the actual ability of busy, working residents to have the time and resources to monitor waterways effectively. This problem led the Alliance for Appalachia to create the Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project (ACE), a program founded in 2011 by Appalachian Voices, which provides not only a forum for residents to archive their water quality findings, but also training for correct methods of water quality testing.
The ACE project specifically focuses on areas impacted by coal mining and mountaintop removal. Volunteers are trained to collect data from streams, ponds, creeks, and rivers that are downstream from mines and other areas at risk of contamination. The water is tested for levels of specific conductivity, temperature, pH, and total dissolved solids, which are trusted indicators of pollution levels and overall water quality, both for residents and aquatic life. Once the data is collected in the field, citizens can then upload their findings to ace-project.org, where all of the data is stored and can be reviewed and downloaded by anyone interested in their water quality. The location that water was sampled is also placed on a map, so that it is easy to see where and when water has been tested.
The Appalachian Water Watch team has recently expanded the capabilities of the ACE website and has created an interactive map that not only shows where water testing has occurred, but also the mine boundaries of both active and inactive surface mines. This new component contains information about the mines such as the permit number, mine type, mine status (i.e. under reclamation, active, inactive), the permittee, the mine name, and the number of acres occupied. This is a valuable new addition to the project because volunteers will be able to see the exact geographic location and status of mines, which will help them decide the most effective location to test the water.
Another recent addition to the ACE website is the introduction of a database of heavy metals testing results. When standard water testing reveals high levels of conductivity and total dissolved solids, or oddly acidic or basic pH levels, additional samples are sent to a laboratory to be tested for a suite of metals and metalloids, including arsenic, iron, manganese and selenium. Many of the metals have limits imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and when those limits are exceeded, companies can be forced to make changes to reduce pollution.
The overall goal of the ACE project is to empower citizens to take charge of their waterways and enable them to hold coal companies and other large polluters accountable for their actions. Each improvement in this program is done for the citizens themselves to help along their initiative to demand clean water in the areas where they live and work. If you are interested in participating in water monitoring through the ACE Project, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sarah grew up in Todd, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She graduated from Furman University in 2012 with a B.S. in Earth and Environmental Science. She is interested in environmental justice, land conservation, and improving water quality.