Recovery: New Life in Coal Country

Acid mine drainage devastates streams, but there are surprising efforts underway in Coal Country.

When coal seams are ripped from the earth, rocks containing sulfur-bearing minerals get exposed to air and water, creating toxic cocktails of sulfuric acid and dissolved metals, usually iron.

This acid mine drainage (AMD) can excise all life from a stream. And even where the kill is incomplete, iron precipitate can render the streambed unfit for fish spawning and benthic life by coating it with an armor-like layer of red, orange or yellow sediment — “yellow boy,” as it’s called.

AMD also dissolves such toxic metals as copper, lead and mercury, poisoning ground and surface water.

Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Virginia, Alabama and Georgia are blighted by AMD.

Rebirth of the Cheat

But some spectacular remediation is underway, especially in Appalachia. Consider the rebirth of West Virginia’s Cheat River.

In the 1990s the Cheat was dead. Canoers and kayakers had to tote bottles of fresh water to wash the acid out of their eyes.

Muddy Creek entering the Cheat River. Courtesy of Friends of the Cheat.

Fifteen years ago, as the Cheat started to recover, Trout Unlimited activist Bill Thorne and I stood on a high bank beside the “T & T site,” watching AMD, partially treated by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), gush into Muddy Creek, the source of 40 percent of the Cheat’s acid load.

T & T Fuels Inc. owner, Paul Thomas, and his mine superintendent, Clyde Bishoff, had circumvented costs and The Clean Water Act by piping their AMD into an abandoned mine. It worked splendidly until April 1994 when the side of the mountain blew out. There was a second blowout in March 1995. The pH of Cheat Lake, 20 miles downstream, dropped to 4.

Thomas was sentenced to six months home detention and 4.5 years of probation; and both he and Bishoff were heavily fined. T & T Fuels forfeited its cleanup bond, required by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977.

The disaster propelled the Cheat to American Rivers’ list of most endangered rivers and inspired formation of Friends of the Cheat, a group that works to protect and improve the watershed, especially by raising money to treat AMD from bondless, pre-SMCRA abandoned mines.

Acid mine drainage near Kayford Mountain, WV. This site is now undergoing treatment. Photo courtesy Vivian Stockman / Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition,

DEP’s Office of Special Reclamation took over the T & T site, doing its best with remediation. But its “best” wasn’t good enough according to a court ruling. As the new owner, DEP had to meet clean-water standards like any mine owner.

So now DEP is putting the finishing touches on a state-of-the-art, $9 million treatment facility that, with pre-dissolved limestone slurry and two 80-foot-diameter clarifiers (like you see at sewage-treatment plants), will resurrect the lifeless lower 3.4 miles of Muddy Creek, connecting the Cheat with upper Muddy’s six miles of pristine brook-trout water. And AMD from nearby tributaries will be piped in for treatment.

The iron, aluminum and manganese precipitate will be pumped from the clarifiers up into the abandoned mine.

View of Cheat River and gorge from State Park overlook. Photo © Clark Vandergrift

“A Scene Beautifully Grand”

Working with 50 landowners who have voluntarily contributed their properties, Friends of the Cheat has facilitated 16 treatment projects on pre-SMCRA acid sources. Fifteen of these projects are “passive,” meaning limestone-lined channels and wetlands do the work. One is “active,” meaning a “doser,” a silo-like structure kept full of crushed limestone, automatically buffers as needed.

When Thorne and I toured the Cheat watershed in 2003 some of the passive projects were starting to fail because they were clogging with yellow boy.

Smooth Rock Lick after passive treatment when brook trout, transferred from Bearcamp Run, started producing young. Photo © James Walker, WV DNR

These days AMD is pushed through limestone leach beds, then sent to settling ponds that collect the precipitate. Dosers worked well then and now, but they require much operation and maintenance.

“Nowhere in all this fair land of ours has a scene more beautifully grand broken on the eye of poet or painter,” wrote Philip Kennedy in 1852 of the canyon cut by the Blackwater River. On his exploration of this Cheat headwater he reported that his party took 350 brook trout in a single afternoon.

Thorne and I were filled with hope when we inspected the passive project on Blackwater’s grossly acidified North Fork. But it wasn’t long before this three-quarter-mile limestone trench and wetland armored up with yellow boy ceased functioning. Now Friends of Blackwater is designing a modern passive project that will drop the yellow boy in settling ponds.

Five years after our visit the flow-activated limestone-grinding drum station on Blackwater’s mainstem, that partially neutralized AMD from Beaver Creek, was replaced with a more efficient doser that made the canyon better able to sustain at least hatchery trout.

And Friends has recently entered into a partnership to deal with multiple AMD seeps upstream on Beaver Creek. The group’s hydrologist, Ian Smith, believes this new treatment will allow remnant brook trout, that persist in the headwaters, to repopulate the whole flow. “Once chemical treatment succeeds,” he says, “we’ll also need to provide shade because of all the past logging.”

Cheat Threetooth Snail near Cheat River in West Virginia. Photo © Clark Vandergrift

Walleyes Return

For 60 years environmentalists, anglers, hunters, birders, hikers, whitewater rafters and boaters had dreamed of protecting the 3,836-acre Cheat River Canyon, treasured for its beauty and biological richness. Early in the 21st Century this nearly happened. The state was narrowly underbid by Allegheny Wood Products, which promptly began razing the forest.

But the forest is habitat for the federally threatened Cheat three-toothed land snail. Citing Endangered Species Act violations, environmental groups sued. As settlement the defendant sold the land to the Forestland Group, an enlightened outfit committed to sustainable forestry and wildlife conservation.

Walleyes (a species highly sensitive to acid, now reproducing from Cheat Lake to Cheat Canyon) in the Cheat River. Photo courtesy of WV DNR

In 2014 The Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund and other partners acquired the property and transferred ownership to the state. The Conservancy retains 1,361 acres of the canyon as its Charlotte Ryde Nature Preserve, a stronghold for the threatened snail.

Now that timber isn’t being hacked out of the canyon, acid-producing pyrite and sandstone soils no longer bleed into the river.

Today the pH of the Cheat has increased to the point that warmwater fish abound.

Friends of the Cheat director, Amanda Pitzer, told me this: “Last week [mid-May] some friends paddled 50 miles from Parsons to Kingwood. They couldn’t keep the smallmouth bass off their lines, almost got tired of catching them. The fishery on the Cheat is amazing. We now have walleyes [especially sensitive to acid] reproducing from Cheat Lake all the way up into the canyon.”

Left: Bear Run before Phase 1 treatment. Right: Bear Run after Phase 1 treatment. Photo courtesy of Tom Clark / Susquehanna River Basin Commission

More Recovery

West Virginia’s Three Fork Creek, a Tygart Valley River tributary, is on the verge of complete recovery thanks to the combined effort of DEP’s Office of Abandoned Mine lands and Reclamation and Save the Tygart Watershed Association.

In 2010, before four dosers went in, a survey turned up one green sunfish in 12 miles of Three Fork Creek. Less than two years later, with the four dosers online and no fish stocking, a follow-up survey documented 1,605 fish representing 21 species.

A fifth doser, to be placed upstream in the watershed, will allow brook trout to navigate the mainstem and share genes with isolated feeder-stream populations.

Bear Run native brook trout. Photo courtesy of Tom Clark / Susquehanna River Basin Commission

So many acid sources enter West Virginia’s Middle Fork River that neither passive treatment nor dosers are practical. So for 20 years the state DNR and the Office of Abandoned Mine Lands and Reclamation have been adding limestone sand directly to the flow at 47 sites, thereby recovering 30 miles of mainstem and 89 miles of tributaries.

“Now we have brook trout moving between tributaries,” says Rob Rice, director of DEP’s Division of Land Restoration. “Those dump sites became part of the substrate. So we’ve created an alkaline bed to the point that we don’t have to dump sand every year. We can alternate years. We’ve also been doing land reclamation to reduce the need for limestone sand.”

Smooth Rock Lick after passive treatment when brook trout, transferred from Bearcamp Run, started producing young. Photo © James Walker, WV DNR

Smooth Rock Lick, which used to funnel brook trout into West Virginia’s Buckhannon River, became an AMD casualty decades ago. In 2009 a survey team led by DNR biologist Jim Walker turned up no fish. Soon thereafter the Buckhannon River Watershed Association facilitated work on a passive system.

In 2015, three years after project completion, Walker’s team found the stream teeming with creek chubs, blacknose dace, white suckers and striped shiners. The following year it electro-fished brook trout from nearby Bearcamp Run, transferring them to Smooth Rock Lick. In September 2017, the team found young-of-the-year brook trout.

Fish at Smooth Rock Lick after passive treatment. Photo © James Walker, WV DNR

Much of the Susquehanna River system is polluted with AMD, but good things are happening there as well.

Among the more impressive success stories is the resurrection of Pennsylvania’s Bear Run.

Tom Clark coordinates AMD work for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission — an interstate body, with representatives from New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the federal government, that manages environmental stewardship and economic development on river and watershed. He offers this: “We’ve completed nine treatment projects on 15 miles of Bear Run and done some major land reclamation.”

Bear Run remediation was especially challenging because different types of runoff, required different treatment. Higher in the watershed runoff had decent pH but was loaded with iron, necessitating settling ponds and wetlands. Further downstream AMD was contaminated with aluminum, necessitating limestone beds. Further downstream still AMD was bad enough to require dosers.

“The South Branch had been devastated,” reports Clark. “So we put eight of our nine projects there — two aerobic wetlands, three limestone drains, two silos [dosers] and land-reclamations, planting oaks, cherries, maples and blight-resistant chestnuts from American Chestnut Foundation. After we got water quality pushed up in South Branch, North Branch brook trout moved in and repopulated the entirety of Bear Run.”

Left: Bear Run before Phase II treatment.. Right: Bear Run after Phase II treatment. Google Earth images courtesy of Tom Clark / Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

Fifteen years ago I could not have imagined the amount or quality of AMD remediation that has occurred in Appalachia.

Still, all is not well there. For example, about 2,500 miles of AMD-impaired stream remain in West Virginia, 3,000 in Pennsylvania.

As Churchill, declared after the British ran Rommel out of El Alamein, “This is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.”

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  1. Rich Patterson says:

    Interesting story. Restoration is an imporant activity.

  2. Robin Blakeman says:

    Great news! If only we could get stream clean up programs like this going on every stream that has been debilitated by extraction industries.

  3. Anne Duncan says:

    This story is wonderful. Thank you for this well-described success, and thanks even more for the hope.

    Forty years ago, I spent a couple of weeks alone in the cabin of a rural western Pennsylvania landowner. The forest was amazingly beautiful, but the creek was horribly sick, fishless and almost lifeless and thickly coated with orange and yellow. I didn’t know what was wrong. Now I do. Thank you to all the varied “doctors,” from landowners to scientists, who are restoring life to these waterways.

  4. Bob Henry Baber says:

    Wonderful read.

  5. Ed Perry says:

    One more reason why we should be getting off these dirty fuels that are ruining our air and water quality and are the reason our planet is heating up. We needed fossil fuels at one time, but renewable energy is our future and we need to get on with it ASAP.

  6. Maggie Frazier says:

    Gives me hope that just maybe our natural habitat can be saved & repaired! Without water – there is no life.

  7. F D Thompson says:

    Very informative article!

  8. Alan says:

    Boy, I’d like to STOP those coal mines in each of those 15 states mentioned above and I would like to STOP that armored sediment you spoke about.

    Not interested in coal for energy or a fuel tomorrow or in the future.

  9. Marc Thwaits says:

    Good article-but the photo of the fish in the net (above) that came right after comments of brook trout being found in 2017 are primarily chubs. I don’t doubt your word that trout were found. But misleading photos or inaccurate text are fodder for the naysayers to say everything in the article is “fake news”. Please clarify in the caption that accompanies the photo or show one with trout in it. I support The Nature Conservancy and I don’t want anyone to be able to damage its reputation by referring to a photo gaff.

    1. Ted Williams says:

      Hi Mark:
      Thanks for supporting TNC and its reputation. Not sure how the photo was “misleading” or a “gaff.” It was correctly captioned “Fish at Smooth Rock Lick after passive treatment.” These fish arrived on their own without human intervention and because of that passive treatment. And, while chubs were present in the sample, there were also blacknose dace, white suckers and striped shiners. The brook trout arrived because of translocation. As I noted in the text, two years after the sample the team electro-fished brook trout from nearby Bearcamp Run and released them in Smooth Rock Lick.

  10. John McClelland says:

    It isn’t just the extractive industries; it also is those that burn the coal. I found this article via a link in a Nature Conservancy emailing to members about a handful of current topics. It is doubly interesting because I have recently learned about the horrid condition of a branch of the Vermilion River near Danville, Illinois. I remember 1970s canoeing what later became a National Scenic River, but my niece who still lives nearby and a Chicago Tribune article say leach from the coal-ash pits left by a defunct power plant have made the water unfit to go near.