Skip to content Skip to footer

Troubled Waters: Tennessee Families Stand Up for a Clean Environment

More than 4 million Americans live in places where dangerous contaminants in drinking waters exceed legal limits.

Sterling and Stray, a now abandoned coal mine in Tennessee, is seen on May 18, 2017. (Photo: Valerie Vozza for Equal Voice News)

Clairfield, Tennessee — On the northern slope of Cooper Ridge — a long, low-slung rise in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains — sits the 127-year-old Hatfield Cemetery, a well-maintained strip of flower-adorned plots where gravestones older than a century sit next to still-fresh graves.

Bright pink ribbons hang in the tree branches surrounding the cemetery, marking 100 feet from the burial grounds. Beyond them is planned one of the largest surface coal mines in Tennessee’s history. The mine will soon surround the cemetery. On an afternoon in May, a swath of clear-cut logging was visible through the trees, and heavy machinery could be heard over the sound of chirping birds.

The Cooper Ridge mine will span a total of roughly 1,400 acres of land, both above and below ground, stretching from the southern tip of the ridge where it will encircle Hatfield Cemetery to the northern tip, where it will sit right above the Clairfield Elementary School, which serves 92 students.

The massive surface mine went through most of the permitting process under former President Barack Obama’s administration, and would likely have moved forward with much the same design no matter the result of the recent of Election 2016.

But environmental advocates fear that weakened protections under President Donald Trump could aggravate the mine’s impact on local residents.

They point to legislation Trump signed in February rolling back the Stream Protection Rule, a regulation that had increased water testing and protection measures, such as “hydrologic balance” as the Sierra Club points out, near surface mines.

Some locals fear the damage to their drinking water — not to mention the mountains they call home — could be irreversible.

Around the country, safe drinking water has soared as a topic of concern for families and environmental justice advocates, after dangerously high levels of lead in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan prompted a federal emergency last year. The Standing Rock protests last year also drew worldwide attention to the issue of clean water, which has surfaced in smaller communities, such as Tornillo, Texas.

More than 4 million Americans — many of them in rural areas — live in places where dangerous contaminants in drinking waters exceed legal limits, according to a new database from the Environmental Working Group.

In Claiborne County, where Cooper Ridge is located, and in the surrounding counties rural counties nearly everyone gets their drinking water from wells.

The water table in the mountains is complex and unpredictable, and the heavy metals and waste exposed by surface mining can potentially affect drinking water miles away.

Children are especially at risk when it comes to the effects of heavy metal contamination of drinking water, with the toxic byproducts of coal mining frequently including lead, mercury and arsenic.

Long-term exposure to these toxins can stunt neurological development and damage vital organs, and some heavy metals can even cause cancer.

“Most of the mines around here are back in the hills, back in the hollers, and this one is going to be right in your face,” said April Jarocki, a mother of five who has lived in this Tennessee community for nine years.

“The mine is literally hundreds of feet above an elementary,” said local resident DJ Coker, who, along with Jarocki, is co-coordinator of the Citizen’s Water Monitoring Project, a local initiative that recruits volunteers to test the streams and ponds that dapple the area’s mountains.

The project catalogs the existing effects of acid mine runoff from decades of the industry. It also helps serve as an early warning system for damage to the watershed from new mines.

“We don’t have much here, so we have to protect what we have and care for what we have, and that’s what bonds us together,” said Coker, who grew up in the area, left for college, and then returned abruptly before completing his studies to help care for his mother, who was seriously injured in a car crash.

“We care for other people, we care for everything,” he said. “The environment gives you so much. It gives you peace, it gives you food when you need it, and the least I can do is protect it.”

April Jarocki, a resident in Tennessee's Cumberland Mountains, tests water on May 18, 2017 for any pollutant that might have come coal mining activity. (Photo: Valerie Vozza for Equal Voice News)April Jarocki, a resident in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, tests water on May 18, 2017, for any pollutant that might have come coal mining activity. (Photo: Valerie Vozza for Equal Voice News)

“We’re the Treehuggers”

On the northwest side of Cooper Ridge sits Clearfork Valley, a community cobbled together from several unincorporated towns along the Clear Fork Creek. The residents of the valley are relatively isolated even from their county governments — they’ve lobbied unsuccessfully for several years to get an ambulance station, since the closest one is over a half hour away.

Cell phone service is practically nonexistent, and the two options for internet service are an expensive satellite uplink or archaic dial-up connections.

Much of the land surrounding the valley is owned by out-of-state shell corporations. But since 1977, the Woodland Community Land Trust has been purchasing land in the area a few acres at a time, to return it to community use and protect it from strip mining.

“We own 450 acres, so we’re competing with them, our 450 to their thousands,” said Tonia Brookman, director of the trust.

Then, she said, letting out a laugh: “We’re the treehuggers.”

Brookman, though personally opposed to further strip mining in the area, realizes that jobs are the first priority for the community, where employment options are limited. Unemployment in this area remains high, and many residents live on $600 to $700 a month.

The operators of the Cooper Ridge mine project say that it will create about 85 jobs at its peak, each paying around $50,000. The mine is expected to operate for about nine years.

“When you have no jobs, 85 jobs sounds like a lot to this community,” Brookman said. “When you’re thinking about this type of employment, you’re not going to say anything negative about it.”

It is a dilemma faced by many Appalachian communities, which have seen coal mining employment declining steadily as major seams are exhausted, and cheaper natural gas and Wyoming coal flood the market, diminishing demand.

Brookman and other community members in this part of northern Tennessee, as well as in Appalachia in general, have been pushing for new solutions beyond ever larger and higher altitude surface mines.

The land trust includes two long-abandoned coal mines, which could be eligible for federal remediation funding.

In cooperation with the University of Tennessee’s agriculture program, the land trust has applied for an EPA Brownfields grant, which they want to use to reclaim one of the abandoned sites and turn it into a hops farm.

The working farm, which would be hydroponic because of the region’s poor topsoil, could employ as many as 65 people, Brookman said.

There’s only one problem with the plan, but it’s a big one. The federal budget proposal put forward by Trump includes huge cuts to the Brownfields program, a popular initiative that helps communities convert abandoned industrial sites into productive economic uses. Trump’s budget would cut the program by more than 30 percent.

Brookman fears that, far from ending the ‘war on coal’ and boosting the economy of Appalachia, which voted heavily in favor of Trump in November, the president’s policies and budget proposals could devastate the region. The administration’s budget also proposes eliminating the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), a multi-state agency that injects millions in economic and infrastructure development grants into the region.

In April, Mick Mulvaney, the president’s budget director, said in a television interview that Trump “probably didn’t know what the Appalachian Regional Commission did,” but had decided to eliminate the agency anyhow.

“ARC does so much for this community,” said Brookman, noting that financial support for several of the homes on the land trust came from the agency in the 1990s.

“The sad part is: How long is it going to take after this funding gets cut? How many years is it going to take before they realize what’s happened? It’s going to make a huge impact here, and not just here but all rural communities. And rural communities are the ones that voted for Trump. They believed what he said — that he was going to make it great again. Everything he’s cutting is affecting the people who supported him and believed in him.”

A Game of Cat and Mouse

On a May afternoon, Jarocki and Coker headed up the northern base of Cooper Ridge to one of their water testing sites in Valley Creek. Next to the creek is a natural gas wellhead that appears to be abandoned, protruding from a foul-smelling rust-orange pond coated with a filmy sheen.

The pond spills an orange plume into Valley Creek, where Jarocki, wearing waders, measured the creek’s temperature, acidity and conductivity. A mile or so downstream, Valley Creek joins the Clear Fork, which runs past Clairfield Elementary School and then hooks north into Kentucky to join the Cumberland River, which wanders back into Tennessee before joining the Ohio River and, ultimately, the Mississippi.

The region’s complex hydrology means that even with planning, mining often has unintended consequences on the water table. Ann League is the executive director of SOCM, a member-run organization formally known as Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment. SOCM fights for economic and environmental causes in Tennessee.

League had little interest in politics until strip miners began razing Zeb Mountain near her home. Soon after, her well water turned orange — so much so that after a shower she’d wake up with rust-colored stains on her pillow.

Stories like this abound in the Cumberland Mountains, making the Citizen’s Water Monitoring Project something of an environmental neighborhood watch program. Volunteers from the community join Coker and Jarocki once a month to check water quality at various testing sites in the area.

The test results are fed into an open database maintained by the Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project, which collects citizen water quality data from similar groups in four states.

If the water quality test results are concerning, as they frequently are, they can be used to file official complaints that trigger a state inspection. The testing data also can be used to put citizen lobbying pressure on lawmakers and bolster lawsuits against mining companies.

But it’s a task that can feel thankless, and requires a constant game of cat and mouse. Jarocki and Cocker are careful not to trespass, but given warning, they claim, the mining companies use a trick to distort test results: throwing a car battery into a drainage pond to temporarily neutralize any heavy metals that have leached out from the mining site.

Fighting for the Future

The Cooper Ridge mine has received all but one of the permits it needs to move forward, and appears set to open soon, barring massive community outcry. The jobs it will create will be among the few new Appalachian coal mining jobs created so far under the Trump administration.

But many residents are concerned about long-lasting impacts on health, especially children’s health. Claiborne County, where Cooper Ridge is located, has one of the highest childhood asthma rates in the state, at 18 percent.

The permit area of the surface mine extends to within roughly a half mile of the Clairfield elementary, right up the slope from the school, raising concerns about dust from the mine further jeopardizing the children’s health.

“It’s a very different time we’re in, and I’m still wrapping my head around what it means for our communities,” said Bonnie Swinford, an organizer with the Tennessee Sierra Club.

“The massive funding cuts that are happening right now are especially disappointing at a time where we’re getting beyond the talk about the ‘war on coal.’ Communities are ready to figure out what is next for their economy, and we’re no longer stuck in this place where it’s taboo to talk about what’s beyond coal,” she said.

DJ Coker and April Jarocki worry that by the time the environmental impact on their community becomes clear, long-lasting damage will have already been done.

To build upon the grassroots efforts to protect the environment, they want to expand their water testing efforts and recruit more volunteers.

“I spent a lot of years looking for home,” Jarocki said. “My children love these mountains. There’s something about this part of the mountains that feels like home.”

“I want my kids to see that when they’re older, and I want my grandkids to see that. I want those kids to swim in the creeks, and to see these beautiful mountains.”