Water Monitoring: One Citizen’s Tools for Social Justice

Floyd County resident Rick Handshoe was recently featured in The Independent. In his article, Ronnie Ellis details the many hurdles and endless meetings Handshoe has had to endure in order to protect the water around his home.

Rick has noticed contaminated water from sediment ponds flowing into streams on either side of his property. He’s noticed the disappearance of aquatic life (an indicator of stream health), and that the water sometimes runs red. Previously, Rick used water from the creeks for his plants, but can no longer do so, as the acidic, heavy metal-laden water kills his plants. More recently, the mountain below which Rick lives, which has a reclaimed surface mine near its summit and an abandoned underground mine below, has had three seeps open on the side of the mountain over the course of six months. Water is spewing out the side, sometimes at 20 gallons a minute. Samples obtained by Appalachian Voices show that the water coming from these seeps are high in aluminum, cadmium, iron, manganese, selenium, silver, and zinc, in addition to other metals and salts.

Rick has contacted the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources, Division of Water Department (DOW), Department of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement (DMRE), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to report the water pollution and other problems around his property. He has also been in contact with his elected representatives: the governor, Steve Beshear, the attorney general, Jack Conway, Democratic Speaker of the House, Greg Stumbo, and Republican U.S. Congressman, Hal Rogers. However, beyond visits from federal and state officials (including Governor Beshear), no concrete steps have been taken to remedy the issue.

Despite this, Rick has been successful in getting much needed attention to the impacts of mining on water quality. He has talked to neighbors and community members, and while he hasn’t always been able to sway people to take an interest, there is growing acknowledgement that there is a problem and water is being affected. The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center has filed a notice of intent to sue Laurel Mountain Resources, LLC, as the blowouts above Rick’s home are violations of the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

While this journey is quite the saga, riddled with obstacles and impasses, when social change does happen, we often know the conclusions of actions but don’t learn the process. We don’t learn that it took time, we don’t know how much patience it took, we don’t know that the person(s) responsible for these acts were just regular people.

Our culture promotes a sense of complacency and helplessness because we’re told that whatever the issue, whatever the approach, individuals never have enough knowledge or power. However, we have far more power than we realize. Rick, a retired radio technician with a GED, has taught himself the “skills of a water engineer” in order to protect the land his family has lived on for 200 years. As Rick has shown us, in order to maintain hope and commitment, we need only to act and keep on acting for humane social visions in an often resistant time.

More info:
Ellis’ article
Ellis’ interview on KET (starts at 13:04)

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