We are now officially installed in our mountain stronghold here in the Appalachians – two cabins nestled high in the beautiful Breaks Interstate Park. “The Breaks,” as it is locally known, is called thus because it surrounds a deep gorge where long ago an inland sea broke through the containing rock, forming a river. The area is beautiful in a way that is both foreign yet strangely familiar to New York. Rippling mountain ranges enclose steep-walled gorges, with evergreens and still-brown deciduous forests cut by jagged grey faces of exposed rock. Yesterday, the mist resulting from a light but steady rain rose visibly from the sides of the valleys and flowed in unearthly waves over the smaller peaks. Like the Northeast, the valleys here are threaded with winding rivers and the land is still brown from winter. However, the region is also distinctly different: the valleys are steeper, the climate warmer and wetter, and the native species distinct from those in New York state. An inspiring landscape indeed!
Yet this incredible natural beauty also bears evidence of human exploitation. Partly constructed towers for a new highway bridge extend hundreds of feet into the sky in a small valley near the Breaks, surrounded by heavy cranes and mud. Although the mine companies do their best to conceal the mines with trees and topography, some mines are still visible. They jump out at you on first sight: abrupt, jagged cutout from the surrounding topography, with brown slopes devoid of any and all vegetation. In addition to the mines, there are also “prep plants” near the train tracks where coal is washed and separated from other minerals. These prep plants often engulf roads, churches, and even small residential communities with heavy machinery, networks of vast pipes, and toxic ponds filled with the remnants of the coal-washing process.
On Sunday we split up into groups to test the water quality in streams and rivers near coal mines and prep plants with volunteers from our partner organizations. Despite the rain and cold, we learned a lot about the main water quality issues near the mines, which parameters to test for, and how to test for them. We used YSI probes to monitor temperature, pH, conductivity, and total dissolved solids. High levels of conductivity and total dissolved solids indicated the possible presence of toxic heavy metals in the water, so at sites with high levels of these parameters, we collected samples to send back to a lab for further testing. We also learned about the difficulty of finding appropriate places to sample. Often, coal companies surround their mines and prep plants with acres of private property, making it very hard to reach the water sources most directly affected by the coal runoff. We became best friends with public roads, which are public property and thus fully legal to test from, even if in the shadow of a prep plant structure.
Some of us also stayed at the park to help with park and trail maintenance. A group of four helped repair signs and hauled heavy lumber up and down the winding trails through the Breaks. Their full day of labor helped prepare the park for the upcoming summer season, ensuring that more people will be able to appreciate the park and discover the area’s striking natural beauty. Needless to say, the group was exhausted after so much hauling, digging, hammering and wrenching. Yet the work was also empowering, in very different way from the reading and studying we are all accustomed to. As Becca reflected tonight, “I feel stronger after yesterday than I have felt in a very long time.”