For four generations, the coal mines of southwestern Virginia gave Nick Mullins's family a life. Now, he says, the mines are destroying the life he and his fellow miners have known.

"Coal mining is on the decline. The easy seams are gone. And the coal industry has set to exploiting workers as much as they used to," he said.

Nick Mullins stood out when he joined activists, concerned citizens and members of congress at U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) public hearings on proposed carbon-emission regulations for new power plants, including coal and natural gas.

The hearings dealt with policy, but for Mullins, the issue is personal. He knew something had to change when the spring his family had drawn water from for decades turned bright orange due to runoff from coal-mining practices.

"I started opening my eyes to the much bigger issue," he said, "…it came with the understanding that the valley my kids were being raised in wasn't the best place for them to be raised in anymore."

While the coal industry and Republican lawmakers often claim that U.S. President Barack Obama and EPA regulations have killed coal jobs, the United States has actually increased coal-mining jobs by 10 percent since 2007. But the overall number of mines has decreased: In Virginia, 22 out of 118 mines open in 2007 have since shuttered. As Nick puts it, "it's become a competition to work in the mines … so many people have to fight to make sure their families are taken care of." [Why Do Coal Mines Explode? ]

Nick quit the coal mines in 2010 and moved his family out of their ancestral valley not long after. Since then, he has campaigned to promote policies that will increase economic diversity in Appalachia and reduce the region's pollution and current reliance on coal mining.

In his opinion, proposed carbon-emission regulations could help traditional mining regions by encouraging them to invest in energy efficiency and related trade jobs, moving away from the mono-economy of coal mining "so we no longer need to extract these resources and destroy people's homes."

As he wrote last year on his personal blog:

 
"For fighting for the land and a brighter future for every child in Appalachia, one in which they are not destined to a life of pain and suffering in the coal mines, drinking poisoned water, or overdosing on drugs, I, Nick Mullins, have become a despised environmentalist."

Daniel Turner is a multimedia journalist who has filed stories from Iowa to Indonesia. He now covers energy and environmental issues for Climate Nexus. Turner contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

Related on LiveScience and MNN:

This story was originally written for LiveScience and was republished with permission here. Copyright 2014 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company.