A bathroom of a house polluted by polluted water near a coal mine in West Virginia
In the shadow of some of America's most controversial coal mines, where companies are using huge amounts of explosives to sweep the mountains, isolated communities claim that their water has been poisoned.
Now, they have to decide whether they will fight an industry they have relied on for generations.
Casey (pseudonym) is wearing a wedding ring of a dollar now. She bought the blue plastic bracelet after her original ring was damaged by the toxic water that has been injected into her home for over a decade.
"I just needed something over there," she says, taking the replacement ring to the light. "I felt empty without that." She places her original alliance, now discolored and corroded, in her palm. His skin, especially on his hands, became rough and painful.
The faucets of his house were worn out, his washing machine no longer works and his bathroom and kitchen were stained with a bloody orange by the pollutants – iron, sulfur, or even arsenic – that leaked into water from his home.
This is Appalachia – the heart of the coal country of America. It is home to some of the poorest and most isolated communities in the United States. One can see the mining heritage, whether it is abandoned treatment plants or marked landscapes, rubbing shoulders with its vast highways.
Casey House is a small, two-berth structure with a wooden porch in southern West Virginia, in a location where mobile phone reception is very uneven.
She pours a glass of water from her kitchen faucet and lets it rest on a table. It has a strange smell and a sticky texture and in a few minutes begins to turn to dark orange. A layer of black sediment soon sinks to the bottom of the glass.
"That's what we have to live with," says Casey. "We do not bathe in the water and do not cook with it – it stains our nails, our fingers and our clothes – it's really, really hard to live like that."
Casey and her husband Jack (this is not his real name), have two young kids and drive over an hour to stock up on water bottles with which to drink and cook. So who do they hold responsible?
"I've been here all my life, but when the surface [coal] mine arrived, that's when the water started to change, "says Jack, who, although a minor, believes the industry is responsible for his family's water problems.
"I think that if they acted badly, they should have to fix it."
A sample of water taken from Casey
At the sprawling mine of the nearby valley, millions of pounds of explosives are blowing up at the top of the mountains so that coal, buried beneath the surface, can be excavated.
This process is a type of open pit mining known as the removal of the mountain, which has angered not only residents but also environmental groups who claim that it is devastating the landscape and polluting the mountains. of water.
A study estimates that an area the size of the state of Delaware has been flattened by this type of coal mining, practiced for the first time in the 1970s.
Another report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 3,000 km of watercourses – a distance longer than the Mississippi one – have been buried under the excesses of rock and soil (nicknamed lands) that were dumped after the explosions.
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Explosives explode in an open pit mine in Appalachia
And in a region of the world where many people depend on their own wells to get water, rather than a conventional pipeline, any pollution from mining waste can have devastating consequences.
These private wells are essentially unregulated. So it's up to people like Casey and Jack to determine if their water has been contaminated. But the complex nature of water pollution means that many people are completely unaware of what is coming out of their faucets.
"When you dump a lot of overburden into the valley and begin to cover streams, you have water sources that end up crossing the river. [waste] Professor Michael McCawley, an environmental engineer who has spent a lot of time researching the effects of mountain retreat on health.
"It's a bit like throwing geological garbage," he explains. "It ends up increasing the concentration of acid ions and metals [in the water], things like arsenic and nickel. "
According to his research, this pollution has had a negative impact on the health of those whose water supply is on his way.
"This population is under attack both by water and by air," said Professor McCawley. "What we find in the water is likely to cause inflammation of the body, which can trigger many other chronic diseases.
"Great [problems] we have found are certainly cancers. Name a cancer and they see it here. "
When asked about cancer rates, Casey unveiled a list of people living nearby recently diagnosed. "Oh, Lord, everyone has had it," she said. "It's scary."
Rock waste from a mining mine at the top of a mountain, abandoned in Wyoming County
Dr. Wesley Lafferty, based in the neighboring county of Boone, believes that a number of health problems are exacerbated by mining waste.
"We have all kinds of symptoms," he told Human Rights Watch last year. "Rash, restrictive airways disease, dermatitis, generic skin disease.
"I really think that there is an environmental component to that."
In a valley not far from Casey and Jack's house, and sitting within earshot of the same mine that would have caused water contamination, Jason Walker describes many of the same problems.
"My water was clean and clear before the start of the mountain uprising," he says. "It got worse, it smelled like rotten eggs and the color of my sinks, my faucets [taps], all my clothes became orange. "
He then had his water tested and warned that the product was so toxic that if he washed his clothes, he would be exposed to the sun with direct sunlight.
Jason Walker at the creek near his home in West Virginia
Jason now prepares bottles of bottled water, but he collects water from a nearby stream and treats it with pool chemicals to power his home.
Last winter, after a period of great cold weather, he used an ax to cut over 12.7 cm of ice in order to access the water from the creek. But when the pipes that he used to retrieve it froze, he had to go through it.
"I'm going to have a new well drilled for $ 4,000 [£3,088] to prevent me from starting again, even if I do not know how good the water will be, "he said. I have taken out a loan on our property to pay it. It's a huge bet.
"My grandfather was a coal miner, my father was a coal miner, but if the mines tear something up, I think they should replace it.
"I want more regulations that actually help the little person and not the fat one."
Jason shows the iron scum that has accumulated around his water filtration system
During a telephone interview with the BBC, a spokesman for the company owning the Wyoming County open pit said it was operating in compliance with state and local regulations. with a valid permit.
"We see ourselves as very good neighbors and if anyone had a problem, we would solve it," said spokesman CM Energy, who took over the mine in 2017.
When he was presented with the complaints of local residents, the spokesman refused to take his responsibilities and said that the contamination of the water could have been caused by a number of different problems.
"If we thought we were responsible, we would strive to do something about it," the spokesman said. "If our society could do anything to facilitate the work with politicians and the local community, we would participate."
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Dynamic Energy, the former owner of the mine, did not respond to a request for comment.
The company is being sued by a number of residents – including Casey and Jack – who are demanding compensation for the costs of treating their water problems.
A similar lawsuit took place a few years ago and Jason, who was participating in this legal battle, said the entire community was divided between those who supported the coal industry and those who wanted to fight back.
"There is a lady on the street here who does not want to join the trial," he says. "She has not spoken to me for almost two years because of this, they were afraid it would mean a loss of employment."
Casey understands their concerns. "That's how people make a living and support their families," she says. "If you do not work in the coal mines, you have to either flip hamburgers, or you have to leave the state and do something else."
But her husband, Jack, says the decision to join the latest lawsuit was not difficult, even though he is a coal miner.
"The only thing that really matters is having fresh water like when I was young here," he says. "I do not worry about money, I just want drinking water.
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