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Poisoned Water, Fossil Fuels


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Still from the film ‘Burning the Future: Coal in America.’ Image by:

Mountaintop coal mining. Hydrofracking. The endless search for fossil fuels is polluting our
waterways and our water supplies. On this edition, how the fight to protect clean drinking water is motivating Americans to take action. But with regulatory agencies in the pocket of industrial polluters, will it be enough and will it be too late?

Special thanks to the Park Foundation for partial support of this program.

Amy Goodman, Democracy Now host; Maria Gunnoe, West Virginia organizer and Goldman
Environmental Prize recipient; Bill Raney, West Virginia Coal Association president; Rocky Hackworth, Pritchard Mining Company general manager of operations; Ben Stout, Wheeling Jesuit University ecologist; Jim Hecker, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice environmental enforcement project director; Billy Sammons, Lick Creek, West Virginia resident; Joe Manchin, former West Virginia governor; Janet Keating, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition executive director; Tara Lohan, AlterNet senior editor.


For More Information:

Burning the Future: Coal in America
Maria Gunnoe
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition
Trial Lawyers for Public Justice
The Alliance for Appalachia
CLEAN (Citizens Leading for Energy Action Now)
Christians for the Mountains
Beyond Coal
Rainforest Action Network on coal
West Virginia Coal Association
Evening of Witness
Voice of Witness: ‘Evening of Witness’ Excerpts
Maude Barlow
Democracy Now
Park Foundation
Alternet Water section

Articles, Videos:
Mining the Mountains
5 Deadly Threats to Our Precious Drinking Water Supply by Tara Lohan
The 5 Most Toxic Energy Companies and How They Control Our Politics by Tara Lohan

Otha Fish by The Pharcyde
Somethin That Means Something by The Pharcyde


– This week on Making Contact–

– Stop poisoning our children! [INAUDIBLE], hear us! Stop blasting our homes! [INAUDIBLE], hear us!

– Mountaintop coal mining, hydrofracking– the endless search for fossil fuels is polluting our waterways and our water supply.

– The water that comes from our water table, I do not drink it. I don’t cook with it. I buy every bit of the water that I get.

– Is our environment important? It’s the most important, but there’s a balance.

– On this edition, how the fight to protect clean drinking water is motivating Americans to take action. But with regulatory agencies in the pocket of industrial polluters, will it be enough, and will it be too late? I’m Andrew Stelzner, and this is Making Contact, a program connecting people, vital ideas, and important information.

– My name is Amy Goodman, and I’m the host of Democracy Now, a daily grassroots, global, unembedded, independent, international investigative news hour. Tonight, we were celebrating this remarkable exhibition on the value of water.

People are so unaware in the United States of what is happening to the supply of water and how important it is to not only talk about the value of water but to talk about equity– who has access to it and who doesn’t. I don’t know who first said it, but the idea that the wars of the 20th century were around oil, the wars of the 21st century will be around water. And that’s why all of us have to confront it together because if we don’t, we will all go down. We will all drown in dirty water.

And as I thought about tonight, I thought of Maude Barlow, the activist, the former UN water ambassador, who wrote a piece called “Where Has All the Water Gone?” She said, three scenarios collude toward disaster. Scenario one– the world’s running out of fresh water.

It’s not just a question of finding the money to hook up the 2 billion people living in water stressed regions of our world. Humanity is polluting, diverting, and depleting the Earth’s finite water resource at a dangerous and steadily increasing rate. The abuse and displacement of water is the ground level equivalent of greenhouse gas emissions and likely is a great cause of climate change.

Scenario two– every day, more and more people are living without access to clean water. As the ecological crisis deepens, so too does the human crisis. More children are killed by dirty water than by war, malaria, HIV/AIDS, and traffic accidents combined. The global water crisis has become a powerful symbol of the growing inequality in our world. While the wealthy enjoy boutique water at any time, millions of poor people have access only to contaminated water from local rivers and wells.

Scenario three– a powerful corporate water cartel has emerged to seize control of every aspect of water for its own profit. Corporations deliver drinking water and take away wastewater. Corporations put massive amounts of water in plastic bottles and sell it to us at exorbitant prices.

Corporations are building sophisticated new technologies to recycle our dirty water and sell it back to us. Corporations extract and move water by huge pipelines from watersheds and aquifers to sell to big cities and industries. Corporations buy, store, and trade water on the open market like running shoes.

Most important, corporations want governments to deregulate the water sector and allow the market to set water policy. Every day, they get closer to that goal. Scenario three defends the crises now unfolding in scenarios one and two. Imagine a world in 20 years in which no substantive progress has been made to provide basic water services in the third world or to create laws to protect source water and force industry and industrial agriculture to stop polluting water systems or to curb the mass movement of water by pipeline, tanker, and other diversions which will have created huge new swaths of desert. That’s an excerpt of a piece by the former UN water ambassador Maude Barlow called, “Where Has All the Water Gone?”

– That was Amy Goodman, the host of Democracy Now, speaking at an event called Evening of Witness in New York City. The event was held on March 22, World Water Day. Historically, the day has brought attention to developing nations, places where infrastructure and access to clean drinking water still elude millions of people. In the United States, those resources exist.

But increasingly, industrial polluters are being allowed to poison Americans’ precious drinking water supply in ways that endanger us all. But citizens are also finding a voice and fighting for clean water. A recent PBS special called Burning the Future– Coal in America visited the mountains of West Virginia, where locals are battling the coal industry and the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining. Today, we’re going to listen to a portion of that documentary, profiling some West Virginians fighting to save the waterways they’ve grown up with and protect their family’s health.

– My name is Maria Gunnoe. I’m from southern West Virginia, a small town called [INAUDIBLE]. I’ve been here 37 years, my family before me four generations on this property. My family’s been in this area since the 1700s.

In 1951, my grandfather, Luther Gunnoe, purchased this property to come here to mine coal. He done different jobs in 32 years. I think he done one of every one of them.

And then they use dynamite for the blasting, TNT for the blasting. And then they would blast the insides of the mountains out and gather the coal and take it out. And the amazing thing about it is his wife left back years ago, and he raised his children on his own.

He had seven kids that he raised on his own. He raised them right here on this property. My dad, of course, was one of his children that was raised right here. And I’m now raising my children here.

The family always, a lot of times, would do things. You know, and it was all circulated around the land, you know? So of course, the land was kind of like the root of the family

For being here, part of the survival is knowing the mountains. And that’s what my family taught me, and that’s what their family taught them. We collected things from the wilderness– ginseng and sassafras, morel mushrooms.

We had deer, venison meat, then wild boar. Those are things that come from our mountains. Being able to pass on our culture is extremely important to me because it’s a culture of survival.

I got up one morning, and I heard chainsaws. And that’s when I realized that there was something going on. In the past five years, they have been doing mountaintop removal coal mining up here. And they have filled this valley with what used to be the mountaintop.

So basically, they’ll plug this entire valley. And they just fill it in. They’ve completely changed everything back here. There’s nothing about it that hasn’t changed.

– Mountaintop mining is dictated by the geology.

– Bill Raney is President of the West Virginia Coal Association.

– If the coal seams to occur in the upper reaches of a mountain, the only way that you can get them is by mountaintop mining. And you know, you try to extract as much of the mineral as you possibly can while you’re in there extracting. The most efficient way to do that or the most effective way is by mountaintop mining because you can remove 100% of the coal [INAUDIBLE].

– Rocky Hackworth is general manager of operations at the Prichard Mining Company.

– It’s a simple process, basically just moving small material from one side to the other side. Once we’ve put it back, slope it back off, you know, plant the grass seed, couple years down the road plant trees. And the process is ready to be restored.

– Common sense tells me when you turn a mountaintop into a barren wasteland, to be honest with you, there’s something that’s going to happen at the bottom of that mountain. I’ve lived here 37 years, and there’s never been anything happen like the floods that’s taken place over the last 4 and 1/2, 5 years. In 2003, when I was flooded, about 4 o’clock, it started raining.

Within 45 minutes, I was already being flooded. Within two hours, I lost my property, my bridges. Around five acres of land was just washed away.

We had nowhere to go. We had no way to get away from it. The water had already ate up to about five foot back on the sidewalk. And I hit my knees in the middle of it, said, please, you know, don’t let it take my home.

And I feel very fortunate. But my kids lost quite a bit. They’re scared of the water.

There’s– any time it rains, they don’t sleep. It was a direct effect of mountaintop removal coal mining up here. There’s nothing left here to absorb the rain.

– Bill Rainey with the West Virginia Coal Association.

– Flooding is a natural occurrence. It’s going to happen when you’ve got too much water in too short a period of time in too small space. And when you look around at the topography we have in southern West Virginia and you look at how steep it is, then you’re going to have flooding when you have tremendous rainfalls. We’re a convenient target to blame. I mean, everybody is looking for someone to blame.

– The mine company engineer come to my front yard the next day and told me that this was an act of God. He stood and looked me in the face and told me that this was an act of God. And it just infuriated me.

I mean, how dare him blame something like this on God? God didn’t do this. God put what was here before.

– This is the second most diverse forest in the world, second only to the tropical rainforest– more species of trees, more species of amphibians, more species of birds. [INAUDIBLE] the central Appalachian hardwood forests from Georgia to New York and this really southern Appalachian region– it’s a fantastic ecosystem.

– Ben Stout is an ecologist at Wheeling Jesuit University.

– We’re at the top of a mountaintop removal operation on a 1,755 foot mountaintop. It used to be 2.055 feet. Approximately 1 million acres of the central Appalachian hardwood forest is slated for mountaintop removal valley fill. It’s just environmental devastation, wholesale environmental devastation, for cheap coal.

– What we’re witnessing in Appalachia is probably the single most environmentally destructive activity in the United States today.

– Jim Hecker is the director of the Environmental Enforcement Project at Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

– Whole mountains are being chewed up, and their waste is being dumped into nearby streams. What we’ve seen so far is over 1,000 miles of streams have been buried and destroyed. A mountain is like a layer cake.

It has layers of rock and layers of coal. And what they do is they take out the overburden to expose the coal. That overburden is then dumped into the streams. And the coal was harvested. And so it’s just grinding up the entire amount.

– We’re looking at an impoundment. We’re about half a mile from it. And you can see the dam, which is composed of course refuge.

And then behind it, they pipe in the fine slurry, which is liquefied coal finds. That gets deposited in that dam. The price of having cleaner air from burning coal is dumping the waste product in these valley fields in the Appalachians and turning one of the world’s best fresh water supplies into crap.

The Clean Water Act was the reason why slurry impoundments were initially created in order to contain the black water that’s left over from the coal cleaning process. Then along comes the Clean Air Act. And the irony is now we need to remove even more impurities from the coal, like the heavy metals. And in order to do that, we’ve employed more mechanics but also more chemicals, like poly acrylamides, diesel fuel, surfactant, other things that are placed in these impoundments.

And these are unlined impoundments. I mean, these are in direct contact with surface and groundwater. There have been a lot of coal slurry impoundment failures.

In 1972, of course, we had Buffalo Creek, which was a coal slurry impoundment failure not far from here, which ultimately released a lot of water and killed 124 people. More recently in October of 2000, the Martin County Coal Corporation’s big branch impoundment in Eastern Kentucky failed by breaking through underground and releasing water into two streams.

Ultimately, they released 309 million gallons of coal slurry. We have about 130 active slurry impoundments in West Virginia that contain over 110 billion gallons of slurry.

That’s just West Virginia. Equal number in Kentucky, plus Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, then out into the Midwest into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. These impoundments represent a legacy cost of burning coal as a fuel.

– Maria [INAUDIBLE].

– Growing up in these mountains, we played in the water a lot in the summertime. That was what we done. We’d go from one river to the other.

That one there wasn’t a river at the time. It was a creek. It was just a small creek. But we would dam it up and make like our swimming pools in it.

The stream that runs through my property is now a pollution spillway. The head of it has been filled by a valley fill. And in this valley fill, you have two sediment control ponds.

And they put a chemical in it called flocculant. And doing research, I found out that flocculant is a very nasty thing. And it runs within 75 feet of my groundwater.

The water that comes from our water table, I do not drink it. I don’t cook with it. I buy every bit of the water that I get.

– Ecologist Ben Stout.

– We’re up at the very head of Sycamore Creek at a mine outflow that used to be the water supply for the Sycamore Creek school.

– Elevation is currently 1,380 feet.

– OK, good. Well, let’s get a sample. So this is going to go in the wells database since it’s the spring and it’s a water source. We’ll take a metal sample.

729.05. The way that I originally got interested in this issue, people reporting black water discharges in their groundwater and in their wells. I began to question whether the impoundments had the integrity they needed in order to contain the coal slurry and the chemicals that are in the coal slurry without them escaping either into the environment or into people’s water supply.


– So this is a stream sample. We’re also taking well samples.

– This is the bucket of black water that come out of the bottom of the water tank when I drained it.

– Yeah.

– Watch. All this is settled to the bottom. That was in my water tank.

That’s what goes into my house every day out of my well.

– Billy Summons lives in Lick Creek, West Virginia.

– I was born and raised on this hollow. This hollow is about 2 miles long. When I was a little child, there was no strip jobs.

There was no contamination of any kind in the creeks in anybody’s wells. Every one right there is a hand-dug that 1,000 people have drunk out of. The coal companies come in and start strip mining and auger mining in the head of Lick Creek. And the more mining activity that occurred, the less aquatic life we’ve seen in the creek.

We used to catch minnows and fish in that creek in the spring that long every year. We catch them all day long. We take him home and we eat them.

We didn’t worry about contamination. They came up out of the Tug River into this creek to spawn. Now there is no aquatic life at all in this creek. It’s all dead. There’s nothing.

– Yeah, that’s nasty.

– 0.5, 0 salinity, 37.4 dissolved oxygen.

– From what we’ve seen in this neighborhood and from this well previously, this is not a healthy well. This water should not only not be consumed for drinking water, but it really should be avoided for any kind of contact.

It shouldn’t even be in the house. This kind of water can make people sick. Over the long run, it can kill them.

– Every time it’s been checked, it’s had higher concentrations of– levels of lead and arsenic and manganese and all these other deadly chemicals that we’re discussing now. My son spent almost a week in the intensive care unit hospital over it, and his urinary tract was in such shape that he had bags of puss coming out. You’re sitting here looking to your kid.

You don’t know if your baby is going to die or not. All these politicians sit in Charleston write these laws that let these companies take the top off the mountains and put anything they want in the mountains. And nobody, the DEP or the EPA, does nothing.

– Is our environment important? It’s the most important.

– West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.

– But there’s a balance. The good Lord gave us the resources for us to help ourselves. He also gave us a conscience and responsibility to make sure that we do it in a socially acceptable manner.

– Janet Keating is executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

– The coal industry, it’s kind of owned the state and operated the way it wanted to. And no one was really paying attention. Along comes the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other organizations, and we begin to pay lots of attention to the way these mines are being permitted. And we find that they’re not obeying the federal surface mining laws. They’re not obeying the Clean Water Act.

– Jim Hecker, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice.

– We ask them how they dump the rock in the streams. And their word for this is controlled gravity placement, which means basically that the larger rocks tend to go more toward the bottom, and the smaller rocks stay at the top. And the larger rocks then allow some of the water at the base of a fill to move through the base. But still, you’re fundamentally changing the entire hydrologic regime of this area.

– Stop poisoning our children! [INAUDIBLE] hear us! Stop blasting in our homes! [INAUDIBLE] hear us!

– Again, Maria Gunnoe.

– My biggest dream for my life was to be a mother. And I never dreamed I’d become a community organizer. And I never really thought about the fact that there was a need for a community organizer.

After the floods, I got a lot more involved and a lot more curious about what was going on around me. And one of the organizations that we work with is an aviation organization. And they flew me over top of where I live out here.

And I seen, from a bird’s point of view looking down on all this stuff, it just amazed me. I could not believe what I was seeing from the air. I come up here in and try to remember what it used to look like.

And I can’t. It’s like standing in another country. There’s nothing familiar about it. They’re coming into these hills and these hollers and they’re destroying people’s lands.

And then people get pissed off, pick up a shotgun, and fire back at them. That’s what hillbillies do. That’s what they’re expecting us to do.

That’s not what we’re going to get out of me. Yeah, I’m mad. I’m madder than hell. But at the same time, getting mad doesn’t solve anything unless there’s something being done.


– Governor Manchin, understand that the coal industry is creating more activists every day. With age permit approved, there will be more and more people fighting the destruction caused by the practice of mountaintop removal mining. We cannot sit idly by as everything that our lives is based on is annihilated. This is our state governor mansion. And with the help of the American people, we’re taking it back.

– That’s right!

– You have to do something. You can’t sit back and do nothing. And this is our something.

– We’ll be right back. You’re listening to Making Contact, a production of the National Radio Project. If you’d like more information or for CD copies of this program, please call 800-529-5736. Because of listeners like you this show is distributed for free to radio stations in the US, Canada, and South Africa.

To find out how to support us, download shows, or get our podcasts go to Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Our handle is making_contact.

– You are listening to making contact. I’m Andrew Stelzer. I’m joined now by Tara Lohan, senior editor at AlterNet.

She’s written extensively about water pollution and other environmental issues and is also editor of the book Water Matters– Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Welcome, Tara.

– Thanks for having me.

– So we’ll been listening to some excerpts from a recent public TV special called Burning the Future– Coal in America. And the character in that documentary who we heard the most from was named Maria Gunnoe. She’s an activist fighting against mountaintop mining in West Virginia.

Since that movie was filmed a few years ago, Gunnoe has been awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. So she’s received recognition and visibility for her work. I’m wondering, does that mean that coal and the dangers that coal poses, especially to our drinking water supply, are also becoming more well-known?

– I think there’s definitely been increased attention being given to extraction of fossil fuels. And coal is one of them. Fracking is another one of those issues as well as tar sands.

And I think that people are increasingly becoming more concerned about global warming. And as a result, they’re looking at fossil fuel energy sources like coal. But that, in turn, is helping to draw attention to some of the lesser-known impacts of coal mining, such as water pollution.

There’s been a great increase in national attention from national organizations such as the Sierra Club. Their Beyond Coal Campaign has helped to stop 150 new proposed coal burning power plants. And Rainforest Action Network has also been working on campaigns similar to that. But what their focus has been on is stopping the financing of these projects by targeting banks. So they’re taking different approaches, but they’re essentially working on the same issue.

– And that movie also reminded me of another recent documentary, Gasland, which was actually nominated for an Oscar. And that movie was about, as you referenced, fracking or hydraulic fracturing, a way to extract oil from underground rock, which is also very harmful to the environment. And over the past few years, fracking has become almost a household word. I’m wondering, in your research and the issues you’re covering, how has that happened, and how has that, again, affected public consciousness about potential drinking water pollution?

– I’ve actually been really excited to see the amount of media attention and public activism that’s going on around fracking. And I’ve been blown away by it, frankly. I’ve been working on issues related to coal mining for years and watching the hard work of the activists in Appalachia on these issues and seeing very little media attention and progress on that nationwide. And fracking has really jumped into the spotlight.

The documentary Gasland has helped that immensely, but I also think that the fact that fracking has come east into areas where we have a much higher concentration of people has also been a big factor. Previously, you know, this has been going on for years and years in small rural communities in Wyoming and Texas and Colorado. But when you’re talking about affecting the drinking water for New York City, then you’re bound to get a lot more attention.

– And so where is the fight for clean drinking water headed? I’ve heard some say the Clean Water Act needs to be revamped. There’s also the Clean Drinking Water Act.

Some people say the current laws in place just need better enforcement. Or does change need to take place on the local level? What needs to happen?

– I think we need changed on every level, starting with, you know, individually our own consciousness about water. I mean, right now, we are flushing our toilets, watering our lawns, you know, cleaning our cars with clean, potable drinking water. So I think there’s a lot that we can do on an individual level and a community level to become more conscious of how we need water in our lives and how we’re using it, how we’re managing it. And I think, you know, we need stronger regulation at the regional level.

A lot of water issues are very regional. Living in California, we know that here. But it’s also particular to various other regions in the US.

And the southeast is facing a lot of issues involving drought that they haven’t had before. And a lot of that has to do with water management. So I think that’s huge. And I also think that we do need better regulation at the national level.

The New York Times did a study a few years ago, and they found that only about 3% of Clean Water Act violations were actually being punished. And so industries, a lot of them are getting a free pass to pollute. And that’s something that absolutely can’t continue to happen.

– Tara Lohan is senior editor at AlterNet and editor of the book Water Matters– Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. We’ll link to some of her work on our website, Thanks so much for being here, Tara.

– Thanks for having me.

– That’s it for this edition of Making Contact. Special thanks to Rachel James. Partial funding for this show came from the Park Foundation.

For a CD copy of this program, called the National Radio Project at 800-529-5736, or check out our website,, to get a podcast, download past shows, or make a difference by supporting our work. Like Making Contact on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Our handle is making_contact.

Lisa Rudman is our executive director, Lee and George Lavender producers, Irene Flores web editor, Lisa Bartfai, production intern, and Barbara Barnett, Dan Turner, Salima Hamirani, and [INAUDIBLE] volunteers I’m Andrew Stelzner. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.


Author: IreneFlorez

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