Carrying water for an end to mountaintop removal

Residents of Appalachia brought over 100 gallons of polluted drinking water to the Washington, D.C. offices of the Environmental Protection Agency this week to call attention to the plight of communities afflicted by mountaintop removal coal mining.

The water samples -- in various shades of red, brown and black -- came from sources in the coalfields of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

"We want to show them exactly what the water situation is in the Appalachian region," said Laura Miller, who traveled from southwestern Virginia. "This is what people deal with coming out of their faucets. We are being asked to use toxic water for drinking, washing and cooking."

Because state governments have failed to stop the pollution and hold coal companies accountable for the damage, the activists are petitioning EPA to set a water quality standard for mountaintop removal operations.

The protest came after several days of meetings between mountaintop removal opponents and Obama administration officials and congressional staff.

The activists are calling on lawmakers to support the Clean Water Protection Act (CWPA), which would offer some basic protections for Appalachian streams. First introduced in 2002, the CWPA (H.R. 1837) was introduced again this week by Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and currently has 45 co-sponsors. They include Democrats Jim Moran and Bobby Scott of Virginia and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.

Yarmuth is also the primary sponsor of the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (H.R. 526), which would place a moratorium on permitting for mountaintop removal mines until health studies are completed by the Department of Health and Human Services. That measure currently has 27 co-sponsors.

This is the eighth year that mountaintop removal opponents have traveled to Washington to press their cause. Last year, dozens of people participated in sit-ins in congressional offices, leading to 21 arrests.

This year's visit comes amid growing momentum in the effort to address damage from mountaintop removal.

Last month, a federal appeals court unanimously ruled that EPA has the legal authority under the Clean Water Act to revoke a permit for a mountaintop removal mining operation issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Also last month, a group of independent physicians and scientists looking into mountaintop removal called for an immediate moratorium on the practice until more research is done to provide a clearer understanding of its health effects.

And following a recent visit to West Virginia communities affected by mountaintop removal, the United Nations Working Group on Business and Human Rights is calling for an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses related to the practice.

More than 20 peer-reviewed studies have found that people living near mountaintop removal operations have a higher risk of health problems than their counterparts living elsewhere. Those problems include cancers, death from cardiovascular disease, mental health disorders, and birth defects.

"There is no longer the luxury of time -- we need the EPA to act now because people are sick and dying now," said Dustin White, a West Virginia resident and community organizer with Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.