The Legacy of the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team – the biggest environmental justice program you never heard of

For decades, the rivers of Appalachia have run orange.

Caused by early unregulated coal mining practices and abandoned mines, Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) is still present in hundreds of waterways in Appalachia and around the world. Scientifically, AMD causes the death of macro-invertebrates, fish, and aquatic plant life, coating affected waterways in orange iron-oxide.

Socially, communities impacted by AMD and the broader impacts of legacy mining are typically rural, isolated, and most of the time – overlooked.

In Appalachia, the impacts of early coal mining are especially apparent. Starting in 2002, a small team of Volunteers and community residents began working on watershed issues in Appalachia, sparking a service movement that has gone to the national level – this is their story.

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In 2002, A partnership between AmeriCorps*VISTA, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), and grassroots watershed improvement groups in Appalachia, formed the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team (ACCWT).

The team placed national service volunteers in central Appalachian communities in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. These volunteers worked to raise awareness of environmental issues and to build the long-term sustainability of local nonprofits who were working to fix them. Many of the watershed groups that were supported by the team are still working to improve and protect water quality in the region today.

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ACCWT Founder, Dr. T Allan Comp presenting at Team Training 2015

Dr. T Allan Comp (pictured above)  was awarded the Service to America Medal in 2009 for inaugurating and coordinating the innovative government partnership between the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) and AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Dr. Comp also oversaw the replication of the model in New Mexico and Colorado – forming the Western Hardrock Watershed Team in 2007. After 7 years of independent management, the two teams merged to form the national OSMRE/VISTA Team in 2014.

 

What the ACCWT represented in Dr. Comp’s words was “the capacity to build on hope” in rural Appalachian communities. As pervasive an issue as AMD is in Appalachia  – ACCWT volunteers and the watershed groups they served have made strides to address it. Their success has led to broader awareness of AMD – and by working with community and government partners, they showed that change is possible, even in some of the most distressed communities in America. Efforts against AMD and other community challenges are still ongoing in Appalachia – you can volunteer to join the effort in Appalachia today. 

The model that Dr. Comp pioneered has since been replicated to form several inter-agency partnerships including OSMRE/AmeriCorps in 2010, and most recently the DOI/VISTA Team and TCU/VISTA Team in 2014.

Along with the OSMRE/VISTA Team, these combined teams comprise what is now one of the largest AmeriCorps sponsors in the country: BRIDGE Network, whose mission is to Build local capacity, Restore healthy environments, Innovate sustainable solutions, Develop economic opportunities, Grow community support, and Empower local leaders. 

In 2015, BRIDGE Network Team Members are doing amazing work, and building on hope in communities across the country. They serve in partnership with community groups, national parks, wildlife refuges, tribal colleges, and yes – watershed associations.

Learn more at www.gobridgenet.org

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