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100 Days, 100 Voices

Still fighting 100-year-old pollution, some worry it could get worse.

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Environmentalism is a bad word, but we’re just trying to clean up the streams. — Stanley Jennings

 

Stanley Jennings: When I worked in the coal mines we had meetings where the safety man would come and say, ‘You got to follow the law. You got to follow these regulations.’ And he said every one of these was ‘wrote in blood. There’s a reason why there is a regulation, because people were being killed because they didn’t do this.’ Right now it looks like they’re trying to deregulate everything, which might set our cause back 50 years. It’s just so hard. Some of the EPA people, they have more or less been muzzled. It’s gonna be sad for the people that have to live here. When I was working on a strip job, the company I was working for was hiding things, not treating the water, this sort of thing. They taught me a lot about a ‘loophole’ where you could go without treating the water and this and that. I told them, ‘This ain’t really right.’ The watershed group, we were trying to protect our water. But, here I was working in a coal company destroying it at the same time. So, I couldn’t be a hypocrite. So, I quit the coal company and then I started to help in the watershed.

We’re getting the people that before would be pretty quiet. They’re all excited because we’ve got minnows in this stream and nobody living around here has ever seen fish in this stream. There’s very few people that’s 90-years-old. And I think we’re getting the backing of the community now more. If we go back to where they can mine coal and not even worry about cleaning the streams because of a change in the laws, how do you fight it? I don’t know how to fight it yet.

Paul Baker: Over the 150 years that coal mining has been in West Virginia, West Virginians have never really benefited that much from it. There have been billions of tons of coal taken out of West Virginia and we’re still the poorest state in the nation. Why is that? It’s because the benefits of coal mining don’t trickle down to the people. We just need to do something and we have to change the politics in this state. The natural gas industry is coming into the state and they’re going to take out billions and billions of dollars worth of natural resource and the people of West Virginia probably won’t benefit much at all.

Things have improved over the years since the ’70s. The Clean Water Act, those laws were passed and implemented, helping to protect the waters and to help clean up the water. We don’t want to give up on that and go back. This might be happening now with the administration. The new administration seems to have a single-minded attitude that they want to roll back a lot of environmental protection laws. Whenever we see something we don’t like we have to do something. We can’t just sit out, we have to be activists.

If Baker could talk to President Trump: One thing I would do is invite him to come here and I would show him what has happened and the results of past mining practices and the improvements we’ve made, what we’re trying to do and what we might be able to accomplish. But we need the support of the law. We need the support of the Environmental Protection Agency. And it seems to me that he’s trying to take all of that away.

Richard Collier: Stop saying ‘War on Coal’ because it was originally a bogus, phony, artificial construct designed to benefit only the coal operators, the owners and company and the shareholders. But it never benefits coal miners simply because it’s a strictly and totally market-driven commodity. If the true cost of coal were ever told, on a ledger sheet, instead of what it supposedly costs, the cost of coal becomes astronomical to the point of being almost illegal. You’ve got to count costs in terms of health and the environment too.

Left to right: Richard Collier, 74, Stanley Jennings, 67, and Paul Baker, 73, in Maple Run, a tributary of Little Sandy Creek in Taylor County, West Virginia.

Some streams in their neighborhood have been polluted for perhaps a century.  Richard Collier, 74, a retired entrepreneur, assists Paul Baker with water testing in the Save the Tygart Watershed Association’s laboratory in Grafton. Stanley Jennings, 67, a businessman and woodworker, visits the streams every day to test the acidity and check on the dosers. Baker, 73, is a retired chemist who runs the testing lab. The three are members of the Save the Tygart Watershed Association, a group that has had various projects over the years to improve water quality.

Mine drainage pollutes thousands of miles of streams in West Virginia. These photos and 360 video were made along Maple Run, the Left Fork of Little Sandy Creek and the confluence of Little Sandy Creek. While there are not studies that go back 100 years, locals will tell you they’ve never seen fish in some of these creeks.

A doser dispenses between 1 and 2 tons of lime into Maple Run each day.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection runs lime dosers on the creeks to reduce the acidity of the water and cause metals to precipitate out of the water. According to the WVDEP, the preparation work on the two sites was approximately $50,000. The Left Fork of Little Sandy doser cost $41,000 and Maple Run doser cost $54,000. In 2016, it cost $53,000 to run the Maple Run doser and Left Fork of Little Sandy cost $130,000 for the year. The bond money forfeited by the mining companies does not equal the cost of remediation and reclamation. According to the DEP, bond forfeitures from Maurice Jennings permits totaled $77,600 and from Mangus Coal totaled $32,328 for mines along Maple Run.

 

Polluted by Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) at its headwaters, the Left Fork of Little Sandy Creek in Preston County West Virginia has been biologically dead for nearly a century according to Jennings. The creek is treated with lime in an effort to neutralize the acidic water, so that by the time the creek reaches the Little Sandy, it has a neutral pH level and metals have precipitated out.

In ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ Nancy Andrews presents photographs depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia. These portraits strive to show the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you have an idea for ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ please contact Nancy Andrews on Twitter @NancyAndrews or email at nancy.andrews [at] mail.wvu.edu.