How has everyone’s 2018 been so far? Our environment continues to be a pressing importance in my life and hopefully you are making it one in yours!
That being said, let’s keep talking about Environmental Justice in Appalachia!
Last month, I mentioned that this blog would be dedicated to a specific case example. One that is personal to me and has been making some news recently, is Martin County, Kentucky.
The story of Martin County is close to me because I have spent the past year studying the environmental injustices of this county for my dissertation research. What have I been doing and what’s going on with Martin County? First let’s get a baseline of the area.
Martin County is:
- A Central Appalachian county of Kentucky that borders West Virginia.
- Contains around 12,000 individuals.
- Predominantly white (94 percent of the population).
- The 115th poorest county in Kentucky.
- The medium household income is around $25,000
- 35 percent fall below the poverty level.
- Where the War on Poverty was born.
- A coal mining community.
Since coal mining is predominant in Martin County, their risk to environmental stressors is increased. Unfortunately this risk increased too far and in the fall of 2000 a disaster struck the county. One of the coal slurry impoundments broke, releasing over 300 million gallons of slurry in two hollows of Martin County: Coldwater and Wolf Creek.
What is “coal slurry?” It is the stuff that comes off coal after it’s washed. “Washed”? Why is coal being washed? Is it dirty? Well…yes! Before it is burned for energy purposes, it must be cleaned to rid various impurities, like soil and rock. The byproduct that comes off during this process is called “slurry” and it is housed in large dams call impoundments, like the one over Martin County.
Appalachian writer, Harry Caudill once said impoundments are “like a pool of gravy in a mound of mashed potato”. I really love that analogy. I feel like it gives a vivid picture of what these things are. It also gives you a good idea of what it looked like seeping into the community. The black gravy mixture contaminated local creeks, water sources, soil and killed aquatic life. For such a small community, tucked in the Appalachian Mountains, you might not think this was a big deal, but it was actually the worst environmental disaster in the southeast, exceeding the amount released from the Exxon Valdeez Oil Spill!
It was my goal to study the recovery of this disaster for my dissertation, so I started interviewing the people impacted. I soon learned that there is another environmental issue plaguing the county. In a nutshell, their infrastructure is poor.
I found that:
- Water lines were breaking, allowing contaminants to enter into the water source.
- There is an average of 60 percent water loss across the county.
- Their water smells, is discolored, and is reported to burn their skin.
- No one drinks the water! Their source comes from bottled water.
- People are organizing and trying to get a new water source for their community.
- People are concerned over their health and community future.
You will probably hear more about Martin County and their struggles in the coming weeks and months as it is gaining more media attention day after day! I am not going into the details of why individuals believe their water system is inadequate; you will have to read my dissertation for that!
Regardless of the reason, this county experiences environmental stressors. It is truly unjust. The story of Martin County is a reminder that environmental stressors are not equally shared across populations!
Until next time,