Rural Action, an Appalachian Ohio nonprofit, has spent two decades working to clean up a watershed in Southeastern Ohio polluted by old coal mines. Now, the organization and its supporters are fighting the permitting of a new surface mine proposed by Oxford Mining Co.
Rural Action, in partnership with the federal and state governments, universities, and other nonprofits, has invested $9 million to date to clean up the watershed. Of that, nearly $3 million has been spent on Sunday Creek, which is directly threatened by the new mine operation.
The group’s work has had a significant impact on water quality over the years. The west branch of Sunday River Creek had no fish when the work began, and now hosts 17 different species.
At a recent public hearing, Michelle Shively, Rural Action’s Watershed coordinator, said, “We hope that the Ohio EPA and Oxford Mining Co. will take into account the tremendous investment and resulting water quality improvements that have occurred in the Sunday Creek watershed and take the necessary precautions to not endanger the biological communities and quality habitat downstream.”
Andrea Reik, a local resident who spoke at the public hearing, asked a question that must have been on many minds. “Why would we go backward? It makes no sense. It’s crazy, and we need to continue saying no.”
In the face of global climate change, Reik is asking the right question. Why continue to destroy, as she said, “precious resources” with new mining operations that would bring 100 temporary jobs to the area but further risk global collapse? Why not look to new opportunities that will grow jobs for a green energy economy, that build on the work of Rural Action to bring back a diverse, healthy watershed? Jobs in coal mining should not be the only option for the people of the region.
But that’s not the logic of the Trump administration, which campaigned on a promise to bring back coal mining jobs. It’s now working hard to dismantle regulations that make mining less profitable—probably the only reason that Oxford Mining is proposing to reopen mine operations.
One of the administration’s top goals is to roll back the Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s climate action plan. The administration announced its plan to repeal the regulations last October and is now in the process of holding public hearings. Three of the four hearings are in coal-friendly areas of the country, but on February 28th, a hearing was held in San Francisco. According to Mother Jones, “dozens of angry Californians filed into the San Francisco Public Library” to oppose the proposal.
“The rescission [of the Clean Power Plan] is a political act to fulfill Trump’s promises to polluting industries,” said Marc Sapir, a family physician and former public health officer at the hearing. “If this EPA cared one iota about the nation’s public health and well-being, it would engage the appeals court in defending the Clean Power Plan.”
Mother Jones reports that an EPA fact sheet removed from the EPA website (along with any references to climate change) reported that the Clean Power Plan would prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 asthma attacks in children in 2030. As the proposal for a new mine in the Sunday Creek watershed makes apparent, the plan also would have reduced mine pollution in our nation’s waterways.
The residents of southeastern Ohio unfortunately won’t be able to count on the federal government to protect their waterways. The administration has already rolled back the “stream protection rule,” which was intended to protect Appalachia’s streams and rivers from being filled with coal mining debris. The EPA has also put a moratorium on the Obama-era Waters of the United States rule, which expanded protections of 20 million acres of wetlands under the Clean Water Act.
These actions come on top of a mass exodus of scientists and other staff at the EPA, as the organization is revamped to prioritize profits over the rights of U.S Citizens to clean air, water, and land.—Karen Kahn