Outside of Hyden, abandoned horses, including a foal, graze on top of an old mountaintop removal site that is part of the Thunder Ridge Mine. The Sierra Club sued the ICG Hazard coal company when high levels of selenium runoff were found in area streams. The mountaintop removal process of coal extraction is ongoing in the area and can be seen at back.
Coal mining sustained families for generations along the Kentucky River water basin. But today, many confront a crisis of faith in an industry that has left the region environmentally and economically vulnerable.
About 700,000 people draw water from the river, a beautiful, winding body that flows from Appalachia to the Bluegrass Region before its confluence with the Ohio River. Along the way, the Herrington Lake community learned that coal ash — a toxic residue from burning the mineral at a nearby power plant — contaminates the water where they fish and their children swim.
The region’s landscapes are altered by mountaintop removal, a search for coal that threatens not only the beauty of the land but also its biodiversity as toxic heavy metals contaminate streams near mines.
Many Kentuckians are working for a cleaner future. The power plant at Herrington Lake is moving toward renewable energy, having expanded its solar and hydroelectricity output. In the Bluegrass Region, a grassroots organization has redeveloped an abandoned hydroelectric facility — with plans for more. And in the Cumberland Mountains, environmental and faith groups work together to restore the ecosystems at mountaintop removal mining sites.
Life along the basin depends on the efforts of groups and individuals to protect the water that passes by and through these Kentucky towns, forests and farmlands.