In the final month of his term, President Barack Obama enacted the “Stream Protection Rule,” a regulation that forbade mining corporations from dumping carcinogenic slag in the mountain streams that are the source of drinking water for millions of Americans. The rule took effect January 19, 2017, but only briefly. This week, the U.S. House and Senate voted to kill the Stream Protection Rule, allowing the pollution of drinking water in mining country to continue unabated.
As environmental health took a back seat to corporate profit, not all voices were quiet. Rep. John Yarmuth of Kentucky, a coal mining state, has been working for years to protect mountain streams from mining pollution. His Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (H.R. 768, the ACHE Act) notes that “Peer-reviewed scientific research and reports have raised serious concerns about mountaintop removal mining with respect to elevated risks in categories of birth defects studied: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, and gastrointestinal.” The ACHE Act would create a moratorium on the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining until scientific studies of the health impact of the mining procedure could be completed by the Department of Health and Human Services.
On February 1, Rep. Yarmuth asked the enablers of mountain stream pollution to put their mouths where their votes have been. In a speech before the U.S. Congress, he held up a bottle of water taken from a well polluted by mountaintop mining slag and challenged his Republican colleagues: I’ll stop opposing mountaintop mining stream pollution if you’ll drink this water.
Not one Republican member of Congress took up John Yarmuth’s offer.
The text of Rep. Yarmuth’s speech:
“I rise in opposition to this dangerous effort to block the Stream Protection Rule, a common sense proposal that has the potential to save lives and will improve the health outcomes and wellbeing of families over time throughout coal country.
This bottle of… well, I guess you can call it a liquid… wasn’t taken from an industrial waste site or from the runoff of a landfill. This came from the drinking well of the Urias family’s home in Pike County, Kentucky. Despite what it looks like, there’s water in there, along with chemicals, toxic minerals, and known carcinogens—all present in this family’s drinking water because of mountaintop removal.
The mountaintop removal process begins with beautiful mountains that look just like this—these are Appalachian Mountains near the West Virginia-Kentucky border.
First, they raze an entire side of the mountain, tearing trees from the ground and burning down any plant growth. From there, they use explosives to blast the tops off the mountains and push rock and dirt out, ultimately filling the surrounding streams and waterways with debris, blast materials, and other dangerous elements and minerals that end up in the drinking water of the Urias family and countless others throughout coal country. This is what is left.
As we’ve noted during our fight for funding to help the families of Flint, Michigan dealing with water contamination: this should not happen here in America in the 21st century. Yet families in coal country have been dealing with this for 40 years, so you can imagine how many people’s health has been jeopardized by this practice.
The Stream Protection Rule that the House is about to block would serve as one of the only safety measures that would protect these families from poisoned drinking water, higher rates of cancer, lung disease, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, birth defects and the countless negative health effects that plague this region.
If my colleagues on the other side of aisle want to block the safeguards of the Stream Protection Rule, they should at least consider supporting my legislation, the Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act, or ACHE Act. I introduced this bill earlier today with Representative Slaughter to suspend new mountaintop removal permits until the Department of Health and Human Services can conduct a comprehensive federal study of the health effects of this reckless mining method, used in my state of Kentucky and throughout coal country.
I believe mountaintop removal should be banned, but at a minimum we should halt all new permits until the safety of the residents in the surrounding communities is assured. Therefore, I urge my colleagues to oppose today’s effort to block this potentially life-saving rule, and support the ACHE Act. We have failed to protect the families in these communities, and passage of this bill will inflict another blow to their health and wellbeing. They deserve far better.
And I’ll make a final offer to my colleagues on the other side: If anybody wants to come and take a drink out of this, I’ll withdraw the ACHE Act and vote for their legislation.”