I got a text from a friend today, and he seemed pretty fired up.
“Hey dude not sure how political you want to get on your blog but I’m trying to spread the word about this shit”
Admittedly I haven’t gotten very political with my posts. I’m largely still figuring out how the world works.
So I jumped at the chance to learn something. I looked at the article he’d sent, dug up a few conflicting sources, then sat down to ask a few questions.
Corey Conville is a graduate student at my alma mater, Bloomsburg University of PA, studying macroinvertebrates as water quality indicators. He’s also an avid fly fisher, and he shared a tiny dorm room with me when we were wee freshmen.
So what had Corey all fired up this fine day? Our Congress is well on its way to nullifying a law passed by the Obama administration just a couple months ago.
The law in question is nicknamed the “Stream Protection Rule.” Here’s what it did:
- since the 1980s, there have been laws regulating the activities of the coal-mining industry related to the pollution of streams and aquatic ecosystems
- the “Stream Protection Rule,” pushed through in late 2016, updated those laws, making them stricter
- the rule established 100-foot streamside “buffer zones” of native plant life
- it also required mining companies to foot the bill for damage to the “hydrologic balance” of any area they weren’t permitted to touch
Let’s pause on that last bullet for a moment.
What damage could mining companies cause?
I’ll let the academic take it from here.
“Acid mine drainage (AMD) occurs when waste water from mining gets into streams,” Corey told me. “It drops the pH [levels and] dissolves heavy metals into the water.”
The result? Streams in and near coal-mining operations and communities turn orange.
“I am from the coal region,” Corey, a native of Pottsville, PA, told me.
“The Little Schuylkill River, which I’ve been fly fishing for years, used to be considered biologically dead from AMD pollution.”
“I can tell you as a biologist and fly fisherman: seeing these rivers that are so close to you run orange… is just awful.”
Okay, with him so far?
Coal mining is a messy business that kills plants and animals and turns rivers orange by making them more acidic and filling them with heavy metals.
So the law would have fixed that issue, right?
Not really, but it would have helped.
“To fix this, we have to remediate the damage done, which is never as good as preventing it in the first place,” Corey explained. He listed a few methods, such as limestone drains (to neutralize the acid) and wetlands (to help remove metals).
But these remediation measures are expensive to create and maintain. And once the AMD water has been created, there’s always a risk it will get back into the stream.
“[That] happened during a flood in Schuylkill County in the early 2000s,” recalls Corey.
He’s so passionate about the rivers he fishes that he chose to dedicate his research to water quality. He recently conducted a study in the very river he fishes, in the hopes of determining just how effective remediation is.
Without going too deep into the weeds (his paper was pretty long), I’ll try to break this down, too.
- He based his study on one done by the Stroud Water Research Center near Philly (I’ve been there, it’s an amazing, world-renowned facility) from 1996 to 2007
- He analyzed groups of pollution-sensitive macroinvertebrates (insects, crayfish, shellfish, worms, etc.) to quantify a water quality score between 1 and 20
- Stroud’s mean score for the decade they studied was 5.8, indicating poor water quality
- Corey’s mean for October of 2016 was 15.51, indicating much better quality
“This seemed awesome and I was pumped, but I would need to replicate this for the next 5, 10, 15 years to draw major conclusions,” Corey told me. The he laughed. “But we’ll take a victory no matter how small!”
Okay, sounds promising. Remediation might be paying off here in PA.
So who’s paying for all of this?
After all, the estimated cost of AMD remediation in Pennsylvania alone is between $5 – 15 billion, according to the USGS.
Not to mention the 3,000 miles of affected stream cost the state an additional $67 million a year due to lost opportunities for the outdoor recreation industry.
“But the burden doesn’t go to the coal companies, but the state and the people of the community that have to clean up the mess for dozens if not hundreds of years,” Corey explained.
So why is Congress about to toss the burden back on us taxpayers?
Well, part of Trump’s campaign was to appeal to the coal workers’ vote. He promised to revive their dying industry.
Obama’s rule was seen as a “nail in the coffin” for coal because the companies would have to cut jobs after taking on the cost of fixing what they destroy. Go figure.
Unfortunately, government can’t do much to breathe life back into coal.
Natural gas, for all of its own environmental problems, is far more efficient.
Nuclear energy is cleaner and much safer.
Renewables might even be viable someday, too.
“Honestly it sucks that people would lose jobs,” Corey said.
“But coal is a thing of the past.”
“I’d rather see money go towards retraining those people to code or work producing renewable energy products rather than a wall.”
“If we’re talking climate change and the possibility of water shortage polluting what we have left, that’s just foolish.”
“Clean water is better than money.”
So that’s where I’ll leave you.
It’s a pretty tough moral dilemma, putting people’s livelihoods at risk for the sake of preserving our precious natural resources.
After all, can people really benefit from clean water if they can’t afford it?
Meanwhile, coal companies only own so much land. If they spread pollution across the state, into water and land that is not theirs to pollute, then should they not remedy what they’ve destroyed?
My proposal? Now that federal regulations are kaput, citizens need to come together at the individual state level and create laws to protect their natural lands and resources.
We can’t rely on D.C. anymore.
Let me know your thoughts.
Nick Cellucci is a freelance journalist, musician and artist passionate about helping people share their stories with the world.
Got a story to share about anything? Contact him directly.