One hundred and fifty middle school fifth grade children had fun and learned about water in the Coal River Water Festival. They took part in the Project Wet curriculum at the Coal River Group’s Science and Education Center. (May 29, 2013 The Charleston Gazette’s Kanawha Valley Neighbors section)
A friend who works to protect West Virginia streams told me the Nestlé Company became the biggest financial contributor to Project Wet apparently to save face due to criticisms about its bottled water operations that wreck havoc on the environment. On the Project Wet website, the creator of Project Wet, water scientist Dennis Nelson, credited Nestlé as the “cornerstone to Project Wet’s success.”
One example of that environmental havoc was revealed in a 2007 report disclosing that Nestlé Water International removes 224 million gallons of ground water from Lake Michigan’s hydrologic system and transports it out of the basin. The report concludes that “The Great Lakes ecosystem has and will continue to suffer irreparable damage.” (
Project Wet is one of many industry supported “environmental education” programs aimed at school children and teachers. Two such programs I am familiar with are the timber industry’s Project Learning Tree and the coal company’s CEDAR, both of which contain industry bias. I don’t know if Project Wet is biased by their corporate sponsors, but considering the influence of corporate money on Project Learning Tree and CEDAR and politicians, it does make me wonder.
I first encountered Nestlé in Nigeria when I was in the Peace Corps. The Nestlé billboards showed smiling, pretty Nigerian models posing as mothers encouraging real mothers to feed their babies Nestlé baby formula. Most of the water needed to mix with the formula was contaminated leading to sickness and death for babies of mothers who were persuaded to abandon their cultural wisdom of breast feeding.
Back to the Coal River Valley, where I was born and raised and learned to swim. John Walls and his family ran the Coal River Canoe Livery for nearly a decade. It was the kind of tourist business that the Coal River Group, hosts to Project Wet, says could flourish along Coal River.
But in September 2001, Coal River Canoe Livery went out of business. In a lawsuit, Walls claimed that black water and sludge spills from a Massey Coal operation, “turned the river black with coal dust, and negated all of the efforts made to clean up the river.” Walls said that once the damage occurs, “you can’t go down there with a vacuum cleaner and suck it out. I mean, it’s like four to six inches of muck that covers anywhere the water has been after a spill… And once it goes back down, it leaves the muck behind, plus the bottom’s coated. And even after a high water or a flood, it still won’t flush…It will get off the banks, but the bottom still stays full.”
As a boy, Walls swam in water holes that have since been filled in with silt from mountain top removal strip mining, leaving a gelatinous muck on the bottom.
Fulfilling a Freedom of Information Act request, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) lists Big Coal River as impaired from the mouth to mile 14.8. DEP listed six tributaries of Coal River, downstream from mountain top removal, with selenium readings considered dangerous to stream wildlife. Selenium is known to cause birth defects in fish such as both eyes on one side of the head and curved spines.
Coal River Mountain Watch did water testing on some tributaries of Big Coal River that are downstream from mountain top removal strip mining. Those tests showed conductivity readings ranging from 1114 to 1550. Readings above 300 are considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be hostile to healthy stream wildlife. Two of those streams with high conductivity are near the Nellis Middle School, one of the schools that participated in the Coal River Water Festival.
American Rivers listed Coal River in the top ten most endangered rivers in 1999 and again in 2012.
Along with the Water Festival’s several exciting and fun-filled educational activities, I hope the children and teachers were alerted to Nestlé’s reputation and involvement in Project Wet financing. I also hope they were made aware of Coal River’s degradation caused by mountain top removal strip mining.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (, and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation ( I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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