Better Water for Our Appalachian Neighbors

By Alison M. Jones

Clean water is a vital and existential need. Many say it is a human right. It is certainly critical to good health. However, not all Americans are guaranteed access to clean water.  NWNL recently read about serious contamination of Eastern Kentucky’s drinking water.

In 2013, NWNL documented this eastern edge of the Mississippi River Basin. Appalachia is filled with misty hollers. Old men rock on front porches, waiting for the warming morning sun to peek into their yard.


Drinking water for rural Appalachian residents should be as sparkly clean as the tumbling waters in their Cumberland River.

But Eastern Kentucky’s water supplies are contaminated by sewage and years of coal and gas extraction.  Coal processing is never far from rivers. In the rain, unprotected piles of black coal leach into the ground and then nearby bodies of water.

The health of residents in Appalachia’s Tennessee and Ohio River Basins is not only impacted by coal’s direct pollution of rivers and groundwater, but also by black carbon – polluted particulate matter spewed from coal-fired power plants. According to the Earth Institute of Columbia University, black carbon particulates are “especially dangerous to human health because of their tiny size.”  This fine soot is “formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass.” It fills the air folks breathe and then drops, polluting land and drinking water supplies below.


Such pollution damages the health of thirsty children and their elders, as well as wildlife and fish. “Breathing in particulate matter of black carbon’s sulfate, nitrate, ammonia, sodium chloride and mineral dust poses the greatest health risks because these particles find their way deep into lungs and the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular and respiratory disease, and premature death.” Black carbon also affects visibility; harms ecosystems; reduces agricultural productivity and exacerbates global warming.

While still debating continued use of coal, U.S. politicians indicate they want to update infrastructure, including rural water delivery and waste-water systems. That should give hope to Eastern Kentucky residents who need federal support for such infrastructure, since public/private funding in Appalachia is minimal.

While shiny new bridges provide visible evidence of federal support, new underground water tanks and pipes are invisible. Human health needs should be recognized as a top priority. Clean water will reduce illness and health care costs in Eastern Kentucky. Providing clean drinking water to all Americans is as important as new bridges.


“If only civilization did not bring with it pollution.” Children’s mural in Ericeria, Portugal.

RESOURCES for this blog


Becker, Benny. “Kentucky Community Hopes Trump Infrastructure Plan Will Fix Water System,” NPR: March 13, 2017.

Cho, Renee. “The Damaging Effects of Black Carbon,” Earth Institute of Columbia University. |March 22, 2016.

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. “What is Black Carbon?


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