In May 2013, Earth Justice filed a petition on behalf of a number of organizations that included KWA, with the U.S. EPA. The petition (at the bottom of this page) requested the EPA to establish a conductivity water quality standard for waterways in the Appalachian coal mining region.
Conductivity is a measure of the ability of water to conduct an electrical current. It indicates the presence of ions in water, including dissolved metals, salt, and other waste, and so is sometimes also described as ionic toxicity. As the petition states,
“EPA should act promptly to promulgate a federal standard because:
- Numerous scientific studies identify a causal relationship between conductivity of 300 µS/cm or more in Appalachian mountain streams and biological impairment of those streams.
- Biological impairment related to conductivity has been documented in streams in Central Appalachia, where it threatens the health of regional watersheds.
- Scientific analysis has demonstrated a strong association between the prevalence of surface coal mining activity in a watershed, downstream conductivity and impairment.
- Yet no Appalachian states have adopted or applied state water quality standards to protect streams and rivers adequately from conductivity-induced impairments.
- And, West Virginia and Kentucky have taken affirmative steps to prohibit state permit writers from interpreting and applying existing standards so as to protect streams from high conductivity.
- If EPA does not take immediate action under section 303(c)(4), uncontrolled increases in conductivity will cause direct and cumulative irreversible harm to Appalachian waters and communities.”
The problems are so clear that in 2011, EPA released “A Field-Based Aquatic Life Benchmark for Conductivity in Central Appalachian Streams.” This “guidance” report was intended to give states some strong evidence and suggestions towards the permitting of surface coal mining operations. Included in that guidance was a recommendation for limits on conductivity of 300 microsiemens per centimeter (μS/cm), a level at which many native species are eliminated from streams. Without creating formal regulations though, states haven’t taken the EPA’s guidance seriously. In fact, several state’s administrations, legislatures, and regulators, including Kentucky, have intentionally disregarded EPA’s guidance. Even more problematic, though, was that in July 2012, a court ruling set aside the guidance on account of EPA attempting to utilize the guidance as a regulatory mechanism.
The destruction of eastern Kentucky’s waterways, and those of other Appalachian states, can’t continue to be ignored. Of the streams and rivers assessed by Kentucky as of 2010, half were impaired or not meeting their designated uses. The state identified about 1,570 miles of streams impaired due to “specific conductance,” or “total dissolved solids” (associated with high levels of conductivity). Kentucky identified a similar number, about 1,983 miles, as impaired with mining as the source. Even more, According to the 2010 305(b) report, only 6 percent of rivers and streams found in the Big Sandy Basin (the most heavily mined drainage basin in Eastern Kentucky) fully support aquatic life, and that figure is smaller every time they report a new assessment.
It cannot continue to be put aside, for the profits of surface coal mining companies. The costs for destruction of these streams, and for the impacts to the health of eastern Kentucky communities and ecosystems, continue to mount. In the past two years, since the EPA conductivity guidance was released, there have been additional studies linking surface mining regions to increased cancer rates and other elevated health risks, as well as more and more evident impacts to water quality. This cannot be allowed to continue. Eastern Kentuckians have very few work opportunities, and as coal mining companies continue to shift their methods to surface mining, even though that causes fewer and fewer work opportunities, it is likewise exposing even more residents and miners to detrimental water quality and air quality.
The Clean Water Act was put into place 41 years ago, in order to stop blatant pollution of our waterways. It is time for surface coal mining to pay the full cost of the practices they use, and implement better methods that protect and restore the waterways of eastern Kentucky from pollutants that cause high conductivity and subsequent downstream water quality impairments.
EPA Webpage on Surface Coal Mining Activities under the Clean Water Act Section 404