By Sierra Breitbeil
I am a naturopathic doctor with over 20 years in medical practice in the Methow Valley. I left my Ohio River Valley 30 years ago because I couldn’t see that the priority for a healthy environment existed there. After moving to Washington state, the “clean” hydropower state, at times I can forget what is happening back east.
More than 470 mountains in the southern Appalachians, which are among the oldest mountains on Earth, have already been sheared off, as an extension of conventional strip mining techniques, this occurring since the 1970s. Explosives, spewing toxic dust into the air, remove up to 400 vertical feet of mountain to expose underlying coal seams. “Excess” materials are dumped into nearby valleys. Current practices include burial of stream channels with spoils and slurry.
Coal slurry — the toxic spoils of washing coal — are piled behind earthen dams that can fail catastrophically, devastating stream systems and killing people, as happened in 1972, 2000, 2010 and 2014 in Appalachia. In 2000, an impoundment failure in Kentucky spilled more than 300 million gallons of sludge into tributaries of the Big Sandy River. The disaster — nearly 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill — killed virtually all aquatic life for 70 miles downstream. At the time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called it the worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi.
Pure air and water are obvious factors in good health. The occurrences of respiratory disease and cancer in areas affected by mountaintop explosions are very high. Communities near mountaintop-mined sites in West Virginia have double the national average in respiratory disease rates. Cancer rates in Kentucky are the highest in the country. Many of my family “expect” that cancer is in their future. Most do not want to drink the water from the Ohio River despite improvements in quality since the 1970s; their concerns about the water combine with concerns about the pipes.
The Stream Protection Rule was a beginning, specifying that new mining operations had to be conducted without damaging streams or aquifers downstream and to comply with the Clean Water, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act. It would seem obvious that industry would have to comply with federal environmental laws, but amazingly, when it concerns mining, this simply is not true. Most of the states involved don’t have the heft or the desire to assure compliance. One mining operation in Southern Appalachia has 28,000 state violations on record and no permanent injunctions of any kind.
Now why would Congressman Dan Newhouse co-sponsor House Joint Resolution 38, eliminating the Stream Protection Rule, that was quietly passed and signed into law in February of this year? Why would he help abolish this rule that was carefully and compromisingly wrought over a 10-year period to create a small measure of protection for water, air, and environment in mining states? There is no coal mining in Washington state, but we know that Dan Newhouse himself is ideologically hostile to all forms of federal regulation and perhaps this is why he wants to help the coal mining industry.
There is also a significant money trail. Like nearly always.
Dan Newhouse currently has a 100 percent approval rating from Americans for Prosperity (AFP). The AFP was founded in 2004 and is funded by the Koch brothers, David and Charles. It is a political advocacy group and one of the most influential American conservative organizations. They power today’s GOP, having raised some $400 million during the 2016 election, and aim to spend another $300 million to elect Republicans in the 2018 elections. The AFP has a history of heavily supporting extremist candidates running against moderate Republicans, a tactic which has been particularly effective at eliminating moderate candidates.
Consider the way the Koch brothers conduct their businesses: according to a study from the University of Massachusetts, only three companies rank among the top 30 polluters of America’s air, water and climate: ExxonMobil, American Electric Power and Koch Industries. Koch Industries dumps more pollutants into the nation’s waterways than General Electric and International Paper combined. The company ranks 13th in the nation for toxic air pollution. Koch’s climate pollution, meanwhile, outpaces oil giants including Valero, Chevron and Shell. Across its businesses, Koch generates 24 million metric tons of greenhouse gases a year.
Dan Newhouse comes up for reelection in 2018, as do all House of the Representative’s members. We all need to consider how these midterm elections will affect our deepest concerns, whatever they are — air quality, the sanctity of pure water, access to affordable health care and the continuity of Medicare, or a continuing social security system.
Sierra Breitbeil is a naturopathic physician with a practice in Winthrop.