CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In April a federal appeals court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency has the right to revoke permits for mountaintop removal mines under the Clean Water Act. The EPA had previously revoked the permit of the Spruce Mine in Logan County. Proponents of the decision say it protects the environment. Dissenters argue that it harms the coal industry and economy. However, is it possible that the biggest benefactor of this decision will be Appalachian culture?
I grew up in Colorado, but my father's family is from Boone County, West Virginia. My great grandfather still lives in the house he built in the 1920s, and I have been to visit him and my other family members many times over the years. When I think of Appalachia, I think of catching crawdads in the creek, climbing up the steep ravines, eating the fresh produce from my family's farm, and fishing along the bountiful, tree-lined rivers.
While these activities will not create jobs and sustain a community, I always felt that they were the backbone of Appalachian culture. However, what would happen if those creeks and ravines were filled up with mine tailings, or flooded with poisonous sludge? Sure, there are environmental and economic factors at play, but what about a way of life that was built around watching fireflies flutter in the cool night air? What will happen when the people of West Virginia find themselves living in a flat, treeless maze of mines and industrial waste?
Many of my family members love to fish. In fact, West Virginians from Charleston to Morgantown seem to all love to fish. However, the state already suggests that you limit how many fish you eat because of the heavy metal content in West Virginia's rivers and streams. The EPA determined that the Logan County mine would irreparably harm two tributaries to the Kanawha River, and a spawning ground for small mouth bass and other fish. While their decision will force Arch Coal, the owner of the mine, to make better protections against pollution, it will also make sure that we can still fish in all of the beautiful tributaries to one of West Virginia's most important rivers.
In 2000, there was a rupture in a mountaintop removal mine's holding pond above the Big Sandy River in Martin County, Kentucky. The resulting spill killed everything in the river for over 70 miles. It poisoned water sources for people, livestock, fish and the rest of the riparian ecosystem. If the EPA can work with industry to make sure that this does not happen to the rivers of West Virginia then I think they should do it. While mining is a way of life that cannot be ignored, it must be done in a way that does not put our other passions at risk. After all, when I next visit my family in Boone County I want to be able to eat the fish that I catch.Blankenship is a social work graduate student at the University of Southern California.