"Water—You Can Drink It With a Fork!"

Helen Newsome and her husband John at a Highlander Water Workshop

Southern Exposure

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 2, "Water Politics." Find more from that issue here.

"Pure as a mountain stream" —this image of sparkling brooks and rivers flowing untainted through verdant hills has become deeply embedded in our national imagination. In the Southern Appalachian Mountains, gigantic projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) have harnessed the enormous power of the region's rivers to generate electricity and to attract industrial development to this historically depressed area; and thousands of tourists flock each year to enjoy the tranquil beauty of waterfalls and spring-fed trout streams.

Despite Appalachia's vast water resources many of its citizens have no access to safe drinking water. Extraction of other natural resources in the region has damaged water supplies, and industry itself, often drawn to the region in part by its plentiful water supplies, has frequently shown little interest in safeguarding those resources. These problems are heightened by the difficulties and expense of proper sewage disposal and waterpipe installation in steep, isolated rural areas.

Consequently, water quality is becoming an increasingly important health issue in the region, complicated by the fact that so many families in central Appalachia depend on private wells or other unprocessed and unmonitored water supplies. A recent TVA report on the counties it serves in six Southern states shows that 22 percent of residents there depend on wells or other private systems (such as cisterns or water hauled from springs or streams), while in central Appalachia the percentage is even higher. A recent study by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) estimates that 60 percent of the population in 21 southeastern Kentucky counties depend on private water supplies.

Many of the aquifers (underground water reservoirs) from which people draw their well water are close to the ground's surface and thus are very vulnerable to pollution from coal mining operations and, in recent years, from oil and gas drilling. Powerful explosives used in both surface and underground mining operations can fracture rock around an aquifer, sometimes causing wells to run dry and often opening avenues for bacterial pollution from improperly disposed sewage as well as from heavy metals and other chemicals that the mines discharge during the digging and processing of coal.

Residents of coal mining communities frequently contend with "black water" (water filled with tarry sludge -suspended solid wastes from mining operations), while others report "red water," contaminated with iron and manganese -not as dangerous as black water but unpleasant to the taste and liable to stain laundry and dishes.

Still other residents -especially in north-central West Virginia -report acid mine drainage, caused mostly by abandoned underground mines where materials surrounding the exposed iron ore become acidic through contact with oxygen or water. This acidic run-off pollutes streams, kills fish and other wildlife, and releases toxic materials into aquifers. Some mine companies discharge wastes from coal-cleaning operations into streams or inject it into abandoned mines where it can leak into aquifers.

Companies drilling for oil and gas also have created many problems. Because of the laws governing mineral rights ownership, oil and gas wells can be drilled close to homes which often use well water. Consequently, drinking water is often contaminated with mud and brine and even with gas itself.

Besides this pollution from the extractive industries, a major threat to drinking water in the region is bacterial contamination, often resulting from seasonal flooding (sometimes made worse when land has been damaged or eroded through strip-mining and inadequate reclamation) and from poorly disposed sewage. This contamination is worst in private well-water, but public water systems are vulnerable too. MACED has published two extensive reports in recent years on drinking water in the steep mountains of Southeastern Kentucky, where many small water companies operate throughout the area. Some are old coal-camp systems now operated by small isolated communities with virtually no monitoring or safety procedures. They often lack the capital and the technical maintenance know-how to provide reliable service. Replacing broken pipes on steep slopes or in crooked valleys is expensive and difficult; thus water supplies are often contaminated and much water is lost along the way. Yet because of groundwater pollution the demand for public water service is growing by leaps and bounds. Kentucky's Division of Water has shown substantial interest in dealing with this problem. MACED reports that the state legislature is about to pass a bill providing for public education efforts about safe well water and for an extensive program of testing well water for bacterial and chemical contaminants. Some aspects of the program are already being implemented.

Clean water is clearly an important issue in the Appalachian region. Concerned residents have found that close monitoring and activism by citizens are the only way to make the cleanwater laws that exist actually work to protect ordinary people from dangerous water pollution.

However, fighting for safe water is time-consuming and often frustrating, as the laws governing responsibility for pollution are hard to understand and the extractive industries are often reluctant to spend money on safeguards and proper land reclamation. In addition, many economically depressed communities are so dependent on these industries that clean water activism is often seen as a threat to jobs. Some activists are harassed by their own neighbors and relatives who see the dangers of losing their jobs as more frightening than the perils of drinking questionable water. Moreover, the challenge of providing clean water through publicly owned systems is complicated and expensive, so that even local governments which are sincerely interested are hard put to find affordable solutions. Yet in communities throughout the region, individuals and community groups continue to demand and in some cases to get action to protect essential water supplies.

The narratives that follow arose from a workshop on Appalachian water problems that the Highlander Research and Education Center held in New Market, Tennessee, in June 1984. They are the personal stories of two people who have become deeply involved in efforts to protect the water resources in their communities. The narratives were published by Highlander in slightly different form in a booklet entitled, "Water - you have to drink it with a fork!" They are reprinted here by permission of Highlander Center.


“We’d lose our well because we are in a circle of strip mines.”



Melissa Smiddy lives in Campbell County, the largest coal-producing county in the Tennessee Mountains. She and her family own two acres of land in the Lick Creek community, where massive strip-mining operations have encroached nearer and nearer in recent years. Tired of having her house and her nerves literally shaken by powerful blasts from the four surrounding strip mines, and worried about the threat to her family's water supply, Smiddy joined a multi-county community organization called Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM'). She now serves on its board of directors and has become an articulate champion of environmental issues at public hearings in the community. Here she recounts the beginning of her involvement in public affairs and comments on the obstacles she has faced along the way.


I was born and raised in the vicinity of Lick Creek. I was the third child of six children. My father was a disabled coal miner. When I was six months old he was paralyzed — this was caused by a rock [falling on him] in the deep mine.

I am the mother of two sons, Hank, age 11 years, and Jeremiah, age five years. I have been the wife of Willie for 15 years. Willie’s dad is also a retired disabled coal miner. Willie has attended night classes at comprehensive high school under instructors from Roane State in mining and the matters that more or less surround mining.

When our house was shaken by blasts from a nearby strip mine we both began to question these blasts because we knew enough that they shouldn’t be that hard.

In the fall of 1983, the heavy machinery and hard blasting shots from a nearby strip mine became almost unbearable. Our house shook — doors, windows, walls, and floor vibrated. We were surrounded by and faced four separate strip mines. The shots were very hard and came at unscheduled times — all through the day and evening.

A neighbor lady and I became very concerned about these problems so we began to try to work with the state agency that regulates strip mining. After many calls from us, the state did curtail some of the unscheduled shots.

As we began the next step — trying to find out if the hard shots that shook our house were illegal — the harassment started. My family members became suspicious of my actions. The Department of Surface Mining (DSM) inspector said my first name to the coal companies’ engineer one rainy, dreary day. The engineer didn’t know anything about me, so he brought my name back to the workers to try and find out about me. In reality, it was the state inspector who was to blame for the harassment because he told the miners that I was making the complaints.

Our complaints about the hardness of the shots brought a seismograph to my home. The state inspector set it up but the whole effort proved fruitless. The machine wasn’t working much of the time. And the miners knew the seismograph was in my yard and held back on their blasting as long as it was set up.

After the seismograph was taken away, the blasts continued. So, in great concern, I had my neighbor friend who is a member of Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) call Vicki (Quatmann of SOCM) and tell Vicki to call me. As soon as she called me we went to work and also became good friends.

Smiddy and Quatmann concentrated first on searching out the legal rights of residents in mine-blasting areas. They found that a resident is entitled to a “pre-blast survey” of his or her home and well, to be done at the expense of the mine owner. This had never been done on Smiddy’s property. After hiring a lawyer, they finally succeeded in getting a mining engineer to inspect her house and water.

Meanwhile, the two became involved in trying to stop the company from receiving a permit to begin mining on seven additional acres in the community. This effort earned Smiddy a certain amount of hostility from the mine-owners and from some community residents.

When I received the results from the water sample taken by the mining engineer, it showed that my water had serious problems with fecal coliform. This really worried me because our well is 500 feet deep and we made a lot of trips to the bank over three years [so we could pay for a deep well] to get good water. I showed the report to Vicki and while we were talking about it she mentioned about how water testing is supposed to be done. That was when I realized how badly the mining engineer had done my water. I told her he had come out with a dirty jar, rinsed it in the creek, and then come into my house to get a water sample!

We notified the state agency right away, sent them a copy of my water testing, then told them how Spradlin’s engineers had done the test. The state people came up and redid my water — and found it was good water and had no problems with fecal coliform. We said that the water survey Spradlin had on my house was bad and probably everyone else’s was also done wrong, and that he should be required to redo the whole set as part of his permit application [to drill on additional land in the community].

When the federals took over here in Tennessee, I asked them to also check my water. Their testing showed the same as the state’s — that it is good water. So now, as we looked over Spradlin’s permit application for the seven acres submitted to the federals, we saw he was still using the bad survey he took on my water in his permit package.

[Companies will make inspections of people’s houses and wells at their own expense and for their own protection so that if someone claims damage they can compare their first inspection to see if damage actually occurred. If they say a well was bad before they blast, then the company has no responsibility.]

Our well is one of the big reasons I got into fighting these blasts. I knew it was only a matter of time before we’d lose our well because we are in a circle of strip mines. When we first bought our house we found out the well was bad. We had to fix it ourselves and pay out of our own pockets. I told Willie, “I’m not giving it up to nobody!”

The state inspectors tell us a lot about these blasts — they try to say it is the nearby powder company practicing. With four different strip mines and a powder company nearby, how are we to know who is doing the blasts? Yet they expect us to name exactly who is doing it in order for them to be able to investigate and serve a violation. They also say that it is just air blasts that sound so loud and that the only ones we should worry about are ground blasts. When your house, windows, doors, dishes are shaking — how are we to know air from ground?

The mining people think we’re common and don’t know anything. They come to test our water with a dirty jar. I say, “That’s not right, that’s got dirty water in it!” And they say, “That won’t hurt — I’ll just wash it here in this nearby ditch!” Then he brings back results that say my water is bad. I’m not going to sign for that — that wasn’t my water!

They took me for an idiot. When you get into something like this it doesn’t take all day for your family to turn against you. My mother’s brother called me, “Melissa, what are you doing? You called SOCM!” And I said, “What are you talking about?” and he says, “You are going to mess around and I’m going to lose my job!” I said, “Well, right now, I’m busy. I can’t talk to you. If you want to, call me back.” I’m still waiting for his call.

Everything you do, everybody knows. I had the Department of Surface Mining (DSM) up at my house and all the neighbors watched. The DSM man asked me if I had talked to my neighbors about this. I tried — but they didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t think they could do anything or add anything that would help. They didn’t want their names used. They all have wells a lot nearer the surface than mine — some actually use surface water. But they’re afraid; and some who fought it years ago, they’re tired and scared too. And they won’t stand with me. They’re too blind, too scared, but soon we’ll be like those people in Kentucky, hauling our water.

We all have wells, but even if we got onto the water from the nearby utility some day, that water’s no good. They’ve had all kinds of trouble with putting in too many chemicals because their reservoir is filled up from all the strips around it. The creek here is messed up. Vicki and I recently saw a huge oil drill just up our creek. It’s the nastiest looking thing I’ve ever seen in my life. The silt pond they just built doesn’t look right. The filthy water comes up over the edge and into our creek. Kids play in the creek. The coal company’s silt ponds are bad, too. They’ve had several breaks and had to go in and fix them.

Even if everybody in our community lost their well, I don’t believe they would stand with me. The coal operator is a smooth talker and I believe he’d wave a dollar bill under their noses. He’d take whatever he wants and go on.


“The water from our well ran solid black.”


“Black water” — a toxic mixture of coal wastes and acids — is one of the most dramatic examples of pollution caused by coal mining. Many coalfield families drinking well water have watched their tap water turn to black, tarry sludge, and many have reported various health problems resulting merely from bathing in this “water,” let alone drinking it. Here Helen Newsome of the small eastern Kentucky community of Ligon tells how she became involved in trying to force the local coal preparation plant to find safer ways of washing the coal and of disposing of its wastes.


My name is Helen Newsome. I was born and raised in Ligon, Kentucky, which is a small but active coal mining community.

Until the end of 1984,1 lived with my husband and our four children at the base of a slag heap [a refuse pile of rock discarded from the mining operation] over 200 feet high. As a child I remember playing with the other children. There were apple orchards. There were large fields that we played ball in. Of course, the tipple [a place where coal is transferred from the mine or trucks to rail cars — usually higher than the truck or rail car so that loading is easier] was there. During my growing up years, I saw many bad things happen. Mountains of slate refuse began covering the hills. More and more land became huge refuse piles.

All of these years I lived at the base of the huge heaps. Heavy rains caused [the coal company’s holding] ponds to overflow, thousands of tons of slate would come tumbling down around our house, the road would become impassible because of slate slides. The piles grew higher and higher. Because of the lack of reclamation enforcement, the piles became huge, black, burning heaps.

All my family and most of our neighbors were employed by Left Beaver Coal. No one ever said anything about these [problems]. People were afraid of losing their jobs or being denied winter coal. Growing up in a coal mining camp had its rewards, but little did people realize what devastating impact coal mining would have on the environment over the years.

The local coal preparation plant facility until the early ’70s ran dry coal. In the early ’70s a washing facility was installed. The black waste water was pumped underground into abandoned coal mines, which connected with other mines in neighboring communities. Also, as the mines began to fill, black water was pumped underground into injection wells. Black water ponds began popping up after the mine workings were pumped full.

The plant was unable to dispose of the waste water properly and for many years the waste was pumped directly into the creek. The plant only had two holding ponds for the black water, to allow the black waste to settle before pumping it underground. These ponds were seldom ever cleaned out, other than being drained into the creek at night. The disposal pipeline lies in the creeks and streams. This pipeline had many open valves used to let the water go directly into the creek, by-passing any holding ponds. Even though residents complained about the black water to state officials, this continued to happen on a daily basis.

In the fall of 1982, the water from our home’s 84-foot drilled well ran solid black—thickened by the tarry sludge that had been pumped underground for so many years. The tap water in our house turned tarry black. Our water was ruined.

For the next two years my family had to buy water to drink after being warned by a coal company employee that the well water could be harmful. My children suffered from severe skin rashes which our family doctor said could be related to bathing in our well water. I notified company officials, but there was no response. We found out later that the whole discharging operation had never been permitted by the state Natural Resources Agency.

At this time I realized that something else had to be done. Even though many complaints were being made, these violations were still happening every day. I began writing as many public officials as possible. I began to call state officials. After weeks had passed, still no response. I called EPA in Atlanta, wrote my congressman, [the late Carl D. Perkins] and other public officials.

I would go to areas where these [government] representatives would be making public appearances. I would tell them my story and ask for help or advice. I was told by my congressman that if I would gather a petition with as many signatures as possible of people objecting to the mining practices and send it to him, he would see that it got to the right people.

Well, I took a petition around and I got 167 signatures — over half the people in the community. Almost everyone had experienced black water coming from their wells. Several wells had been closed because of mines breaking loose, being pumped full of black water and just contaminating the groundwater which runs on over into dug wells and fills them up. So they closed their wells, but nobody never said anything about it or did anything about it.

Because of signing this petition, several people were evicted from their homes that were owned by the coal company; some elderly people were denied winter coal unless they would take their names off of the petition and swear that they didn’t know what they were signing. The community has had quite a few problems. My husband was laid off from the coal company three times. But he says, “If I have to work like that, I don’t want a job.”

All attempts to get company officials to help with our water had failed. They felt that they had no obligation to protect our water from further contamination.

In the spring of 1983, at another public affair, I met an attorney who told me of an environmentalist group, the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition (KFTC), which assists people from area communities in learning how to go through the proper channels and getting the attention of proper officials.

I asked the Kentucky Fair Tax Coalition for help, which they gave. Their hydrologist started various water testing projects at creeks and ponds and other houses in the area. I took the water samples myself and sterilized our own jars to take them. I had some hard times getting them, because sometime the company works at night clearing what few ponds they did have and discharging the waste. It’s black, solid coal sludge — it’s just like tar if you scooped it up; but I got samples of it and we had it analyzed. It has high concentrations of heavy metals and different chemicals and things in it.

So we tried everything we could. I shied away from publicity, but eventually Joe [Szakos of KFTC] managed to take care of that problem. The newspaper had picked up on what was happening in Ligon. State inspectors began turning up many state and federal violations....

In September of 1983 two inspectors were sent to Ligon from the EPA in Atlanta. This was called a routine inspection of the coal company’s methods of operations. But the plant was never in operation when these inspections were being made. I asked the inspectors questions, but they refused to answer. So I requested a copy of their report. I was told that this report was being withheld because of possible enforcement actions. I appealed under the Freedom of Information Act. A public notice stated that the Environmental Protection Agency was withholding the coal company’s reissuance of the plant’s NPDES [National Pollution Discharge Elimination System] permit. During the coming months the black water continued to be pumped into the creek.

Some people were beginning to have more bad experiences, not only with the black water coming through their faucets but from slate slides, pieces of mountain coming off on their property. We also had problems with the huge waste ponds giving way and flooding low-lying areas.

Still pursuing my quest for enforcement of the laws, in January 1984, after several violations were issued in one week to the company, I went to Frankfort, Kentucky, to talk with the secretary of the State Natural Resources Office and showed her pictures of the black water running through our creek. The next day the state handed the company a cessation order to stop the flow of black water into the creek.

In June 1984, I received a copy of the EPA inspection report. The company was indeed in violation of its existing permit.

It took nine months of appeals under the Freedom of Information Act to get this report. It was withheld because enforcement actions were pending. We have never seen if they’ve done anything for it yet. But the conclusion of the report says:

“Based on information submitted to EPA and notices of violations issued by the state reclamation office, the company failed to notify EPA of its violations…Visual inspections of the ponds and the injection systems indicate recent spills and discharges of black water. It appears that the pond sizes are vastly undersized and its only discharge is into the waters of the U.S. Visual inspection of receiving waters has black water, concludes the source can only be coming from the lower prep plant facility, upstream of the facility, or the residence. This permit is in violation of its effluent limitations and its permit conditions.” Signed: Mike Armand, EPA Environmental Inspector.

Next, the plant applied for a permanent program permit. I urged as many people as possible to write and object to this permit being issued. A hearing was held, and the plant was denied their mining permits — truly a victory for everyone that had worked so hard to stop the pollution of the creek.

I feel that this struggle was necessary for the welfare of my family. I still feel I did the right thing, not only for myself, but for others who have to continue to live with what was put upon them by a large coal-producing company. Given the same situation, I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all again.



The coal preparation plant filed for a new permit in the fall of1985, and a public hearing was held in October, at which the company claimed that it had built and tested a new pond system for washing the coal. The state Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Cabinet issued a ruling in November finding that the plant had probably ruined most of the water in the community and that it had a terrible record of violations of health regulations, but said that the company’s “good-faith efforts” were sufficient for the state to grant it a new permit. As of early 1986, the company was operating the Ligon plant only sporadically. No steps have been taken to repair the extensive damage caused earlier.

Helen Newsome moved to Ohio in 1984, but before she left she called all her neighbors asking them to file complaints about the plant. One neighbor, disabled coal miner Palmer Humphrey, has filed a complaint with the Circuit Court asking that the plant’s permit be revoked on account of its numerous past violations and its current failure to repair the damage to the community’s water. Humphrey says that the company dug drinking water wells for two local families, but that the water had to be run through three treatment systems before it passed government standards. “To me, that says the water is pretty well unusable,” says Humphrey. He and his wife spend $300-$400 each year on bottled water just for drinking and cooking.

Humphrey says that many people in the community seem resigned to the fact that their water is ruined, and feel that nothing can be done to remedy the situation. “But there’s 12 to 14 of us,” he adds, “that are planning to keep pushing them. We’ve just got to — it’s our water.”