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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Clean Drinking Water in Alabama: An Endangered Commodity

The Black Warrior River running through Tuscal...Image via Wikipedia
You may have noticed that some of my recent posts have been about water- its protection and conservation.  You may be wondering- why all the talk about water? It's no secret that water is necessary to life.  Hold on, let me clarify that: clean water is absolutely necessary to life. Unfortunately, it seems that our drinking water, especially here in Alabama, is threatened on a consistent basis.

This month, American Rivers, the number-one organization focused on river conservation, published its "America's Most Endangered Rivers ™: 2011 Rivers" list.  Unfortunately, the Black Warrior River, a major source of Alabama's drinking water, specifically for the cities of Birmingham, Jasper, Cullman and Tuscaloosa, is listed as #8 on the endangered list due to the threat from coal mining with the risks being our clean drinking water and public health.

As I discussed in my previous post, Alabama's Drinking Water Is In Danger, one of the imminent threats is the Shepherd Bend Mine, which would directly and negatively impact our drinking water due to its close proximity (800 feet!) to a Birmingham Water Works intake facility.  However, the American Rivers report calls our attention to another larger issue: Warrior Coal Field.  You see, Warrior Coal Field is home to an estimated 95 active coal mines- which accounts for the majority of coal mines in Alabama.  The United States Army Corps of Engineers issues permits annually for polluters under one of two processes: (1) an individual, site-specific permitting process, which allows the Corps to consider public input and local conditions or (2) a general permit, also known as Nationwide Permit (NWP) 21, which does not allow either one of these considerations.  For obvious reasons, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suspended the use of NWP 21 across most of the Appalachian Mining Region- except in Alabama.  "NWP 21 is currently used as a rubber stamp for nearly all coal mines in Alabama (American Rivers Fact Sheet 2011)." Why is this so? Alabama is clearly a part of the Appalachian Mining Region (see bottom right illustration), so that can't be the reason.
To make matters worse, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) and the Alabama Surface Mining Commission both have a legal obligation to protect Alabama's waters from the toxic impacts of coal mining and yet they allow rampant pollution by consistently issuing permits with extremely weak standards. The Black Warrior River is deserving of protection, not only as a large drinking water source, but also because of its recreational usage and rich biodiversity with endangered species, such as the Watercress Darter, a fish only found in Alabama.

What You Can Do

All is not lost! Organizations like the Black Warrior Riverkeeper, Alabama Rivers Alliance and Southern Environmental Law Center are dedicated to holding these agencies accountable for enforcing protective legislation, namely the Clean Water Act of 1972. However, you can do your part, too!

Here are several ways to get involved:

Sign the petition: Protect The Black Warrior River From Toxic Strip Mining Waste.

Support the Black Warrior Riverkeeper by taking advantage of one of their many volunteer opportunities.

Help spread the word.

For a complete listing of the endangered rivers for 2011, visit: America's Most Endangered Rivers ™: 2011 Rivers.

Elena White is the founder and editor of  Life The Green Way, corporate sustainability coordinator at her day job, and a "rurban" wife and mother.  Learn more about her here and follow her on Twitter at @Lifethegreenway.


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