It came from the Glacier: The Return of Banned Pollutants

First of all, let me thank Reuben, Evan, Sam, chemlady, Jamie, and everybody who’s ever read this blog for helping to make it a success. I’m Reid, the new OSM/VISTA assigned to Headwaters, and I wanted to start by talking about an issue that doesn’t effect Letcher County specifically, but that plays a role in water quality more generally.

You may or may not be aware that the 1970’s were the single most important decade in the United States for making inroads in preventing deadly pollution. We passed the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency Authorization Act, started wearing sweaters in the White House, and most important to us here in Letcher County, passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The point is that we successfully made a lot of progress in working toward a cleaner America and world.

Of course, Appalachia got pretty much left behind by those efforts, but we’ll have plenty of time to go into that in more detail. For now, let’s talk about how those successes are being undone. Unfortunately, many substances that were banned from being dumped into rivers and lakes (or, in the terms of the law, “discharged”) don’t just go away. They have to be physically removed from the water, and one of the most efficient ways to do this is to simply freeze the water containing them. When that happens, the non-polluted water that isn’t frozen goes on its merry way, and the frozen polluted water stays put.

Make sense so far? Good. Now, when that frozen polluted water melts, then there’s an old problem. All those banned pollutants come flowing downstream again. Oops. Now what do you do? It would have been simpler to keep things frozen, or to remove the polluted ice. So why wasn’t that done?

Well, glaciers aren’t very easy to remove. When pollutants are frozen in glaciers, they don’t go anywhere. That’s the point I made above. The problem is that glaciers can’t be removed very easily, and so that polluted glacier just hangs around, waiting for something to cause it to start to melt.

The National Park Service states that “if the current warming trend continues in Glacier National Park, there will be no glaciers left [there] in the year 2020.” Which is a fair hedge. But what’s apparent from the Discovery News article above is that when glaciers melt, they re-introduce pollutants that we thought were being controlled – and that’s a new problem.

Do we have the specific problem here in Letcher County? No. There’s no glaciers, for one thing (I should hedge my bets like the Park Service here and note that there’s no glaciers as far as I know). But we do have the problem of persistent pollutants that we are not yet able to remove from our water. Heavy metals leached from abandoned mines deposit themselves on streambeds or are carried into our water supply. Even worse, we sit and do nothing except complain when some event occurs to render our water unusable.

So, if you think it’s shameful that other places are having a new problem, when our old problem still hasn’t been fixed, maybe it’s time to do something about that. Contact Headwaters at 606-634-8669, or e-mail me at to find out how you can get involved.

Posted by Reid

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *