This March, our team of fifteen Barnard and Columbia students will travel from New York to Appalachia, a small town in southwestern Virginia, home to just 1,839 residents.
Appalachia is a community deeply impacted by mountaintop removal mining. Coal dust in the air and heavy metal pollution in water sources create health problems for residents, while blasts from nearby mountaintops damage their property. At the same time, the increased mechanization of the coal industry has removed their jobs, depopulating and depressing the community.
Our project will specifically address the issue of water quality, which is worsened by the “overburden” (read: mountain vegetation and soil) that mountaintop removal mining detonates and deposits into valley streams. Water quality is also affected by chemical pollution from coal processing.
The Clean Water Act and other regulations set limits on the environmental damage coal companies can incur, but regulatory agencies in the region often do not have the funds to comprehensively test streams for damage.
As a result, citizen water quality monitoring has become an important tool to provide regulatory agencies with essential data. The nonprofit we will partner with, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, is just one of several organizations working in the region to empower citizens to collect data.
This data can be used to prevent the granting of new permits to surface mines that will use mountaintop removal. The data is also used in campaigning efforts to encourage the EPA to tighten its regulations and enforcement for coal companies.
During our time in the community, we will collect conductivity data in three watersheds, contributing to ongoing efforts by volunteers in the affected community. We also hope to learn about locals’ experiences, so we can use their knowledge to spread the word about these issues when we return to New York.