Russell Fork River | Photo: Gareth Tate

Locals and visitors love the Russell Fork River for its clean water, whitewater rapids and unique beauty. However, all of this will be compromised if Paramont Coal Company’s proposed Doe Branch mountaintop removal coal mine gets the green light. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of Virginia must reject Paramont’s permit application in order to protect the Russell Fork’s many environmental and economic values for today’s communities and future generations.

About The River

The Russell Fork River winds along the border of Virginia and Kentucky. It forms the deepest gorge east of the Mississippi River and is known as the “Grand Canyon of the South.” The gorge and river are the main attractions of Breaks Interstate Park, which draws more than 350,000 visitors per year. The Russell Fork is a tributary of the Big Sandy River, which is home to a number of endangered mussel and crayfish species.

Go with the flow | Photo: Leland Davis

The river’s sandstone boulders create some of the most challenging rapids for kayakers in the southeastern United States.

Every October, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducts controlled releases at Flanagan Dam, which draw whitewater enthusiasts from around the world, providing a significant economic boost for the area. The river and natural environment play a vital economic role in the region — an area that has been historically dominated by the coal industry. In 2015 alone, Breaks Interstate Park generated $9.95 million in southeast Kentucky and southwest Virginia. The nearby towns of Elkhorn City, Kentucky, and Haysi, Virginia, stand to benefit the most from the continued use of the park. It is crucial that this unique natural resource is protected as an economic and recreation asset.

The Threat

Mountaintop removal is among the most destructive forms of mining, with devastating impacts on clean water, fish and wildlife, and the health of local communities. The Russell Fork is threatened by Paramont Coal Company’s proposed Doe Branch mine in Dickenson County, Virginia.

Mountaintop Removal Mining | Photo: Appalachian Voices

In mountaintop removal mining, heavy explosives are used to blast off the tops of mountains to extract the underlying seams of coal.

Massive amounts of dirt and rubble, called “overburden” by the industry, are dumped into adjacent valleys, burying streams and ruining waterways for miles.

The Doe Branch mine would discharge toxic wastewater into Barts Lick Creek, Slate Branch, Wolfpen Branch, and Doe Branch — all tributaries to the Russell Fork River. As with many other mountaintop removal mines in the area, Doe Branch would likely discharge a host of pollutants including iron, manganese, sulfate, and sediment, as well as toxins such as selenium, beryllium, and arsenic. Mountaintop removal coal mining and the chemicals associated with it are harmful to human and aquatic life and may result in long-term water pollution.

Central Appalachia has supplied the nation with coal for more than a century. Unfortunately, a legacy of coal mining has poisoned streams and polluted air, ruined mountains, crumbled infrastructure, and all too often increased incidences of cancer and other diseases directly linked to pollution.

As the region looks to future economic development, the Russell Fork and other rivers are engines for economic growth. We cannot allow such an important natural and economic asset for the region to be destroyed forever through destructive mountaintop removal practices. The time to act is now to protect this river.

What Must Be Done

Paramont Coal is pushing ahead in pursuit of the Doe Branch mine, despite the dramatic downturn in the coal market and the bankruptcy of its parent company, Alpha Natural Resources. Paramont has already received two of the three permits necessary to mine, as well as approval from Virginia for a key wastewater discharge permit over the objections of the EPA.

Now the EPA has an opportunity to deny Paramont’s application for 11 pollution discharge outfalls — an action that would halt the project. It is crucial that organizations and individuals maintain pressure on the EPA, so that the agency rejects Paramont’s application.

The rich natural resources of the Russell Fork watershed offer a vital recreational and economic lifeline to communities in Pike County, Kentucky, and Dickenson County, Virginia. It is of utmost importance that valuable natural assets like the Russell Fork are preserved for future generations.


Want to learn more about America’s Most Endangered Rivers? Find out about the other rivers listed as for 2016 by checking out the full report.


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