Eastern Kentucky, in the hub of Central Appalachia, has one of the largest low-income populations in the United States. Much of the region’s poverty can be traced to historic reliance on a single economy – coal – and the deleterious effects of mining activity. Environmental effects of mining during the last 35 years have left indelible scars on the mountains and caused widespread damage to streams and water sources.
Environmental problems associated with mining continue to pose serious dangers to the health and safety of people of the region. In an extreme example, in October 2000, parts of Eastern Kentucky suffered what the EPA called one of the South’s worst ever environmental disasters. Millions of gallons of coal slurry spilled out of a coal impoundment in Martin County into streams and waterways in Martin County, eventually flowing into the Ohio River. The apparent cause for the spill was the company’s failure to maintain an adequate barrier between previous deep mine workings and the base of the impoundment. The spill occurred despite an earlier spill in 1994 that should have warned the company and the regulators that protective measures were needed to prevent future disasters.
Mining is also historically very dangerous employment, and unsafe mining practices continue to cause unnecessary loss of life and limb. In addition to the dangers of accidents in the mines, miners risk permanent harm to their health. Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, commonly known as Black Lung, has crippled thousands of coal miners, and continues to cause disability and early death from breathing coal mine dust.