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Poisoning Headwaters Is Not "An Act of God"

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When the National Coal Corporation took over the Zeb Mountain mine and argued that serious pollution of Dan Branch, a headwater stream of the Cumberland River, was an act of God-not an act of incompetence by the previous operator-we knew we were in trouble.


Not that we hadn't been worried from day one about operations at this 2,100-acre cross-ridge surface mine in Campbell County, Tennessee. Cross-ridge mining is a variation of mountaintop removal that requires coal companies to restore the "approximate original contour" of the mountain after they get the coal out. Right.


Picture this: A coal company goes up to the top of a mountain, rips all the trees out, chases all the wildlife away, blows up the top few hundred feet of solid rock, trucks the underlying coal off, bulldozes all the rubble into a shorter version of the original mountain, sprinkles some grass seed onto a thin layer of topsoil above the sterile rock pile, and (except for a few trips back over the next few years to make sure the minimum number of tufts of grass is growing) goes home--mission accomplished. For the next hundred-plus years, the mountain tries to heal itself.


Okay, I left a few things out and maybe oversimplified a few more, but this is Cross-ridge mountaintop removal mining in a nutshell. This is what's happening to Zeb Mountain. While all of this is going down, a lot of other very insidious processes are taking place. I'll just talk about water for now.


The minute the first trees come down, the headwater ecosystems at the top of the mountain are dramatically altered. When the first bomb goes off, they are gone forever. Don't let mining companies tell you that they can restore the functions of these small creeks, streams, bogs, springs and seeps. They can't, and the government study that essentially underwrites mountaintop removal mining says so. (Fact checkers, go here. Learn about headwater ecosystems here.)


So, now we have this rubble mountain with a useless multi-million dollar network of artificial ditches (a.k.a. restored headwaters) and no trees. What happens when the rains fall on these monuments to American corporate engineering? Only 30-60% of the precipitation ends up in the engineered ditches and ponds. The rest moves into the ground water system. If you have a hard time wrapping your mind around this, think of a cat litter box. When my cat Buddy goes in the box, his pee-instead of making a puddle-is absorbed across the huge surface area of all those little rocks. That's why we use litter instead of consolidated rock strata in cat boxes.


At a surface coal mine, this is not such a good thing. True, all that rubble allows more water to soak into the ground instead of washing the scant layer of topsoil down the mountain. But coal seams and mine waste have some nasty stuff in them. When rain flows across or trickles down through this material, it takes on all kinds of other substances. The 40-70% of this toxic runoff that bypasses engineered drainage control structures goes into the groundwater system. Such non-point source pollution is the 800-pound Sasquatch in the surface mine that nobody talks about.


After grassroots groups lost their battle with the Office of Surface Mining in 2003 to stop the permit for the Zeb Mountain mine, citizens continued to monitor the site. In May of 2008, prior to the required 5-year permit renewal for Zeb Mountain, we collected a water sample that showed high amounts of selenium in a stream draining the mine site. On further investigation we discovered that samples tested between December 2007 and July 2008 showed multiple illegal discharges of this dangerous element into a total of three headwater streams that flow from Zeb.


Selenium discharge at mine sites has become a hot issue in the past five years following publication of government study that links excessive selenium discharge to mountaintop removal operations, particularly below valley fills. In one of the more recent cases, fellow coalfield citizens in West Virginia took on Hobet Mining, a company that has multiple violations related to illegal selenium discharge into the Mud River Watershed.


In small amounts, selenium is not harmful. However, the Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for selenium in streams because in larger quantities it is extremely toxic to people and wildlife. For people, excess selenium can cause hair and fingernail loss, kidney and liver damage, and damage to the nervous and circulatory systems. In fish and other aquatic creatures, it causes reproductive failure, birth defects and damage to gills and internal organs. I've seen pictures of fish with both eyes on one side of their head, as well as some with crooked spines, from selenium poisoning. Selenium has another really horrid feature. As fish take it in by eating contaminated food, the selenium tends to bioaccumulate (build up in their flesh) and does not get flushed out. So if you eat fish from water with selenium in it, the levels of selenium in the fish will be higher than the level of selenium in the stream, and you take that higher dose into your own body.


People who eat fish from Zeb's three contaminated streams could be at risk for selenium poisoning. Fish, birds and other wildlife are at risk now, and serious impacts to these creatures can affect entire watersheds. That's why Save Our Cumberland Mountains, Tennessee Clean Water Network and the Sierra Club filed a lawsuit on October 10th, 2008 against National Coal Corporation for discharging excess amounts of selenium at the Zeb Mountain Mine. We intend to hold them accountable and make them clean up the mess.

 This and other kinds of damage to headwaters from mountaintop removal mining is happening throughout Appalachia. It is not an Act of God. It's an act of greed. And it's against the law.


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Cathie Bird, MA, PsyP, is a psychoanalyst, writer and citizen scientist in the Cumberland Mountains of eastern Tennessee. She currently chairs the Strip-mine Issues Committee of SOCM - Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment -- and is also a (more...)
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