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Today is World Water Day, and coalfield residents need your help!

Posted Mar 21, 2022, by Kristen Locy and Ethan Story

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Imagine waking up and starting to make your morning coffee only to find that your water has stopped flowing. Many of those who live in coal country, unfortunately, have experienced or at least know a neighbor whom this has happened to. The likely cause of the water loss is longwall coal mining. In Southwestern Pennsylvania, longwall coal mining is a living and breathing creature. Here, a mining company has the legal right to take the coal, which you have no ownership of, that is located under homes, roads, and rivers – and this can damage water supplies that rely on groundwater.

Starting in 1993, World Water Day was started with the hopes of celebrating water and raising awareness of the two billion people living without access to safe drinking water. This year’s World Water Day focuses on groundwater and making what is typically an invisible source of water a visible reality. The issue of safe drinking water from groundwater is not just a problem halfway across the world – it is a problem right now in Southwestern Pennsylvania in regions affected by longwall mining.

Here is a .pdf of this image.  You may also want to visit the PA DEP’s MSI Story Map Site

Longwall coal mining is a process where large machines remove entire coal seams located underground. As these machines move forward, the ceiling (or the earth between the coal seam and the surface) falls; this is known as “subsidence”. When the ceiling falls, whatever is above it also subsides. This means that buildings, roads, bridges, rivers, and even groundwater also subsides. In a report prepared in connection with Act 54, the PA law which regulates coal mining in the state, it was found that from 2008-2013, nearly 200 miles of streams were undermined and about 77% of those stream miles experienced flow loss and pooling (DEP).

The result is that many features that we depend upon (roads, homes, rivers, lakes, etc.) are at risk of being damaged, and could even be lost forever. Among these losses are many people’s drinking water sources. A vast number of people living in Southwestern Pennsylvania rely on natural springs and wells to supply their homes and livestock with drinking water. When longwall mining comes through, it can shift the water table and either contaminate the water source or totally disconnect wells from groundwater sources. 

Another invisible cost of longwall mining is that some people have lost their right to speak about how they have been affected by mining. Coal companies are required by law to replace people’s water supplies that they have damaged. However, in order to have their water replaced, many people are pressured into an agreement that does not allow them to share their story. 

Lastly, the loss of drinking water resources has caused many people to move away from the area, and often, the coal company will buy their property. This has caused the region to become systemically depopulated, further shrinking both the tax base and public services provided.

Coal is not dead. In our community, it is still expanding its operations and putting at risk hundreds of homes’ water supplies. Remember – cheap energy comes at a cost to some people, and we all still rely on cheap fossil fuels in the United States. On World Water Day, we need you to stand with our communities’ right to clean water and to prevent their voices from being silenced. Donate today to invest in coalfield residents and work to keep more coal in the ground.

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Authors

  • Kristen Locy

    In 2018, Kristen graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in Environmental Studies and a passion to go back to the community where she grew up to make a positive impact. She joined the team in the summer of 2019 as an intern and was promoted to Outreach Coordinator in the summer of 2020. Kristen's family has lived in Washington and Greene Counties for generations. Her great-grandparents were coal miners and steel workers in Washington County. She has a passion for writing, storytelling, and helping to build community in the region she calls home. In her free time, you'll find Kristen canoeing local rivers, gardening, and spending time with her miniature schnauzer puppy named Karl. Kristen can be reached at 724-229-3550 x4.

  • Ethan Story

    Ethan comes to CCJ with a J.D. and a Master of Environmental Law and Policy from Vermont Law School. While attending Vermont Law School, Ethan worked as a Research Associate with the Water and Justice Program. In this role, he worked with diverse stakeholders to help protect their access to reliable, clean water. Ethan also interned with the PA Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania Environmental Council, where he worked on issues ranging from coal and oil and gas development to water treatment facilities. He has been published on the subjects of public trust, water rights, and other environmental issues. When he is not at work, he spends time with his family, running, and fly fishing one of PA’s many beautiful rivers.

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