Kentucky River Watershed

The heaviest concentration of mountaintop removal mining sites in Kentucky is found in the region that encompasses the headwaters of the Kentucky River.  The extent of mountaintop removal occurring in this region of Kentucky is staggering.  The larger cities in the Kentucky River watershed downstream from eastern Kentucky mining  include Lexington, Frankfort, Versailles, Harrodsburg,  Richmond, Nicholasville, Jackson, Hazard, Irvine and Beattyville.  These cities are among the 68 municipalities that draw water from the Kentucky River.

Those of us who grew up on the farm learned at an early age to exercise caution in selecting our drinking water--to avoid "drinking downstream from the herd."  Today much of the Bluegrass Region of  Kentucky is drinking downstream from some of the most irresponsible environmental practices in the history of the state. There has been much controversy  in recent years about the quantity of water available in the Bluegrass region (esp. Lexington), when perhaps the more immediate concern should be the quality of water.

   Kentucky River Watershed
Adapted from Kentucky River Basin Map 1
by Jack Phillips, EKU Geography

Kentucky River Watershed Facts

•• The Kentucky River watershed includes 7000 square miles of drainage in all or part of forty-two counties. (KY DOW)
•• The Kentucky River has a system of fourteen locks and dams, many of which were built over one hundred years ago and are in a poor state of repair.
••  The watershed includes both Kentucky's fastest growing county (Madison) and the most impoverished county (Owsley).
•• The river system includes 255 miles of main channel but a total of 420 miles including the tributaries.
•• 710,000 people live in Kentucky River Basin and depend on it for water source.
•• 68 municipal water intakes on the Kentucky River supply these 710,000 people.
•• Improvements to the water facilities on the river are financed by water user fees currently $0.16 per 1000 gallons of water taken from the river (about $400,000 per year for entire river).  (KRA)
•• Between January 2000 through May 2003, there were more than 17,000 KPDES pollution violations on the Kentucky River.  (KY DOW)

Effects of Mountaintop Removal
Mining on the Watershed 

•• Disruption of groundwater/surface water interactions, by blasting, excavation, and valley fills, can pollute or dry up wells -- sometimes many miles from a mining site.
•• Destruction of vegetation and topsoil prevents the absorption and retention of rainfall, resulting in flooding.  Whether reclamation corrects this is undecided.
•• Valley fills and the burying of ephemeral and intermittent streams prevents retention of rainfall, and can result in flooding. 
•• Flooding and flash flooding results in changes to the stream shape or channel and flow, contributing to increased flooding.
•• Production of sediment and silt which can smother aquatic habitats and life, and fill up reservoirs reducing their capacities and increasing storm runoff and floods. And last but not least, sediment increases the difficulty and cost of treating drinking water.
•• Increases in conductivity, alkalinity, hardness, sulfate and selenium concentrations downstream from MTR operations.  Selenium is highly toxic to aquatic life at low concentrations.
•• Aquatic life forms downstream from mining operations and valley fills can be harmed or killed.

Politics and the Stream Buffer Zone Rule

Under the 1977 Surface
Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Buffer Zone Rule prohibits mining within 100 feet of intermittent or perennial streams. Insisting the rule was never meant to prevent the dumping of millions of tons of waste rock from mining operations into headwater streams, the Federal Office of Surface Mining has proposed a regulatory change to “clarify” the rule. A 1998 federal district court ruling upheld the clear meaning of the rule, but was returned to the state courts on jurisdictional ground by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Office of Surface Mining is currently conducting an environmental review of the proposed change. Permitting continues for the burying of hundreds more miles of ecologically rich streams.

The Coldwater Creek Sludge Spill -- A "Secret" of Gargantuan Proportions

On October 11, 2000, three hundred million gallons of coal sludge broke through a coal slurry impoundment at Kentucky ’s largest mountaintop removal site (The Exxon Valdez spill was “only” 11 million gallons). The
black slurry poured into Coldwater and Wolf Creeks and traveled 100 miles, eventually  reaching the Ohio River, closing down community water supplies and devastating aquatic life. The impoundment,  sitting atop abandoned underground mines, contained two billion gallons of sludge. Regulatory agencies had rated the “pond” a moderate risk for failure. Two weeks after the spill the water still ran black downstream from the areas most affected. Illegal roadblocks, presumed to have been staffed by coal company employees, kept the public from getting close to the worst areas. What some have described as the largest environmental disaster in  US history was hardly reported in the media. There are hundreds of similar sludge ponds across Appalachia at mountaintop removal and other coal mining sites.



Current Status of Kentucky Waters

•• All Kentucky waters are under advisory for excessive quantities of mercury. Women of childbearing age and children 6 years of age or younger are warned not to eat more than one meal per week of freshwater fish.  About 30% of environmental mercury contamination comes from coal-burning power plants.
•• Silt or sediment from "resource extraction" accounts for 22% of impaired stream sites in the Kentucky watershed.  In the Cumberland it's 34%.
•• Selenium concentrations downstream from Appalachian mountaintop removal valley fills exceeded water quality standards in 13 of 15 sites studied for an EPA report.
•• Contributions of surface mining and mountaintop removal to the quality of water in the Kentucky River watershed continue unabated.   
•• Swimming advisories have been in place for several years.  Down from 80% of Kentucky waters a few years ago, several of the state's rivers remain unsafe for swimming because of high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.  (Unsafe waters include parts of the Upper Cumberland River, North Fork of Kentucky, Lower Licking River)   
EPA Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fills in Appalachia


Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Water, Water Quality Reports to Congress for 2004

Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Water, Advisories

EKU Center for Appalachian Studies, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentucky River Facts
Waterkeeper Magazine,
Winter 2006