Go Fish - Or Rather, Don't


Faces of Appalachian fishing (clockwise from above): Ermel Bevins, Doug Justice, and Franklin Phillips.
Image credit:Shawn Poynter

Sometimes the best way to look at an environmental issue is through the eyes of someone whose life has been changed by it. An article in the current issue of Sierra magazine offers a profoundly personal perspective on mountaintop removal mining.

Unless you live in Appalachia, you've probably never seen this practice with your own eyes. A radical form of surface coal mining, it entails blowing off the tops of hills and mountains to get at the seam of coal underneath. The debris is then bulldozed into the valleys and hollows below, burying streams, demolishing habitat, and destroying ecosystems. Formerly lush mountains look like moonscapes.In the Sierra article, writer Tomas Alex Tizon, a former investigative reporter for the Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times, talks to five avid anglers about the Appalachian lake they used to fish: 16-mile-long Fishtrap Lake in the heart of Pike County in Kentucky.

Franklin Phillips, 67 years old and ailing with cancer, shows the writer a walleye lure his uncle gave him more than 55 years ago, and which has worked to catch walleye, bluegill, crappie, mud cat, large-mouth bass - "you name it," he says.

But mountaintop-removal mining has dumped sediment and untold billions of gallons of pollutants into Fishtrap Lake and its environs. Phillips' home is surrounded by these mines, and a company is about to go to work on the mountain right in front of his home. As he shows Tizon his trusty old fishing boat and tells him the story of his biggest catch ever, Phillips' eyes get watery and turn red.

Ermel Bevins says that sometimes he and his buddies used to fish all day and all night and most of the next day, too, hauling along corn bread, potatoes, and green onions to eat with their catch.

Now slurry has turned the lake all kinds of colors, 40-feet-deep fishing holes are filled with sediment, and the fish move slowly and have sores on them the size of strawberries.

"I miss fishing. I love fishing. I love eating fish. I grew up on it," says Bevins. "Now the only fish we eat comes from Food City."

There are more stories, all of them heart-breaking, all of them shining a spotlight on the effects of environmental injustice. Read them and weep -- and then try to make sense of Tuesday's action by the U.S. EPA, which signed off on a Bush administration repeal of the "stream buffer zone rule," which prohibits mining within 100 feet of streams. The agency's decision will finalize the repeal, despite the objections of EPA scientists and top decision-makers in Kentucky and Tennessee.

The Sierra Club is standing with Phillips and his fellow Appalachians. In September, we joined Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in filing a lawsuit against Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Company for mining and filling streams near Fishtrap Lake without permits from the Army Corps of Engineers.

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Tags: Coal | Electricity | Tennessee