By Finn Halloran
A lover of the great outdoors and well-acquainted with the hard work it takes to protect the environment, Dan Firth of Kingsport, Tennessee, endeavors to keep nature natural, whether that be through trail maintenance or by crunching numbers on spreadsheets and geographic data. In addition to his volunteer activities, he works as a self-employed contractor and consultant with the goal of helping environmental organizations develop and understand critical data sets.
He became a member of Appalachian Voices in early 2018 when he began volunteering with Appalachian Voices Water Quality Scientist Matt Hepler, initially testing water quality beneath coal mines. He then helped the team aggregate violation data surrounding Virginia coal mines owned by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice — the information appeared in a 2019 feature article in The Appalachian Voice.
“A lot of the environmental causes I care about are interconnected — coal and the water quality and pollution and climate change and global warming, all those things are all connected,” Dan says.
When the coal company Blackjewel and its sister company Revelation Energy declared bankruptcy in July 2019, the company laid off miners and revoked their last paychecks. Workers protested for months, and in October 2019 Blackjewel agreed to pay back wages. But the bankruptcy case is still ongoing. Environmental problems persist at many of the company’s former mine sites, and have worsened in some cases. Questions remain about who will ultimately be responsible for mine reclamation. Much of Dan’s work involves pulling data about mine transfers, bonding and environmental violations from public sources, and aggregating it in an understandable and manageable way.
“Especially right now, there are a lot of unknowns in terms of how well companies can afford the reclamation, how much of the reclamation is really protected through the bonding and whether or not there are significant gaps that will fall back on the states and therefore the taxpayers,” Dan says.
Coal mine reclamation is a complex issue, and Dan’s work on these projects helps to bring conclusions to the table that lead to action. Now, Dan is working with Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, an organization that Appalachian Voices is partnering with, to track information about Kentucky mine permit transfers and environmental violations. Blackjewel, for example, had 213 permits, many of them with violations and performance standard failures.
“The amount of data just grows, and unless you can bring it together and extract what’s important, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the sheer volume,” Dan says.
“So we try to have data available and be able, in cases where there are actionable opportunities, to take action and provide input,” Dan continues. “If you don’t have [the data] ahead of time, then the timeline is hard to meet when that opportunity arises.”
“Dan Firth has a great scientific mind,” says Matt Hepler of Appalachian Voices, who has collaborated with Firth on several projects. “The value of his work is top-notch, and I am grateful for his work with us.”
Dan sees the people behind the numbers, keeping both the big picture and the lives of the miners, and their families in mind while working to positively impact these communities.
Another aspect of Dan’s care for the environment involves getting back to nature and helping to preserve trails. He is a member of the Tennessee Eastman Hiking and Canoeing Club and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and maintains part of the trail in Tennessee between Low Gap and Double Spring Shelter, participates in group maintenance events, performs natural resource monitoring and applies GIS to trail relocation projects and assessing encroachments.
“In my section a lot of the work is clearing blowdowns and cleaning water diversions, cutting back vegetation and routine tasks like that,” Dan says. “Basically trying to keep it open and keep the water off the trails.”
His maintenance of the Appalachian Trail was paused by the advent of COVID-19, but has since resumed. Dan is appreciative of nature’s power.
“I think we are so connected to the natural systems that we depend upon,” says Dan. “I think a lot of times we forget that, by keeping these systems healthy, we can ensure our communities are healthy and vibrant.”