Justice for West Virginia’s Cheat River

If Congress doesn’t reauthorize the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, it could spell the end of stream restoration.

The majority of the Cheat’s mainstem and its tributaries flow through Preston and Tucker counties—two of northern West Virginia’s more rural segments. Nearly one-half of the watershed’s residents live near a stream or river affected by acid mine drainage (AMD)—and 2007 report found that being located near an AMD-impaired stream reduced average home values by nearly $5,000. Shutterstock

Strapped into a sleek kayak, sporting goggles and a wide smile, Jim Snyder emerged from a ride on an underwater current. The water looked crystal-clear. Snyder’s kayak, river rocks, and darting trout were all visible below the surface. An osprey soared overhead. Another beautiful day on the Cheat River.

The Cheat hasn’t always been this way. Snyder vividly recalled two decades ago when the water was bright orange and there were no fish, a time when the Cheat was dead. “There were years of really bad water …. It was cloudy looking, and tasted bad, and could make your eyes burn,” he said. “It took miles for the water to settle out. It was a really sick river.”

Like many rivers in West Virginia, the Cheat’s legacy has been tainted by acid mine drainage (AMD). When the shafts and tunnels of abandoned coal mines flood, air and water react with pyrite—fool’s gold—to produce acidic water that can contain heavy metals such as iron, aluminum, and manganese. This toxic solution works its way through seeps, springs, and mine portals to enter streams and other sources of water, creating unlivable conditions for aquatic life.

In tandem with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and an army of volunteers, Friends of the Cheat (FOC), the watershed’s advocacy organization, has tackled stream restoration at a fervent pace. According to Amanda Pitzer, executive director of the FOC, by operating 17 of its own remediation sites and working with WVDEP on another 45, FOC has successfully restored the Cheat’s mainstem and several of its tributaries. Macroinvertebrates, freshwater mussels, fish, and predatory birds have returned along with clean water.

But the watershed faces new threats: dwindling federal funding for reclamation of abandoned mine lands (AML); a congressional vote to potentially eliminate the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA); and the Trump Administration’s shrinking of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM), the federal office responsible for implementation of the SMCRA.

“If [SMCRA] ends in 2022, we are saying that, as a nation, we are done cleaning up abandoned mine lands,” said Pitzer. “All the regulatory people and programs would be dissolved. We’re coming to the sunset of this program, and we’re far from done.”

“To Get Up on Your Soapbox and Demand That It Gets Fixed Can Make You Look Bad”

Originating in the highlands of north central West Virginia, the Cheat River flows north for 78 miles through the Allegheny Mountains to its confluence with the Monongahela River in Point Marion, Pennsylvania. It drains a 1,422-square mile watershed comprised of a large portion of West Virginia’s public lands. Spanning five West Virginia counties, the watershed is home to some 45,000 residents, many of whom live in poverty. In the town of Albright, located just upstream of the Cheat Canyon’s whitewater stretch, the poverty rate is 34.3 percent—more than double the national average.

Evan Hansen, president of environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies, believes water quality directly links to economic prosperity along the Cheat. “I think largely there are certain types of development that are undone because these streams are dead … there’s an economy built up around our outdoor recreation industry in West Virginia that just goes unrealized in parts of the state that have bad acid mine drainage problems.”

For Snyder, who manufactures kayaks and wooden paddles in his shop in Albright, that recreation economy is his lifeline. “Tourism is a big deal [on the Cheat] because it brings a lot of state dollars in and it renews every year,” he said. “People come to us because it’s so nice here; tourism runs itself.”

Under Hansen’s guidance, Downstream Strategies has been developing watershed plans with FOC and the WVDEP for the past 15 years. Although he’s seen the Cheat bounce back, its economy has yet to follow suit.

The majority of the Cheat’s mainstem and its tributaries flow through Preston and Tucker counties—two of northern West Virginia’s more rural segments. Nearly one-half of the watershed’s residents live near a stream or river affected by AMD—and a 2007 report found that being located near an AMD-impaired stream reduced average home values by nearly $5,000. If all streams in the watershed were restored, properties located within one-quarter mile of restored streams would benefit by $1.7 million.

But according to Pitzer, the call for remediation often comes from people living in other parts of the watershed. “The tributaries in the Cheat have been dead or damaged for a long time, so folks have gotten used to it,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to connect the dots between how bad and polluted [a stream] is, and day-to day-life of feeding kids and paying taxes. When you don’t have a job and you’re facing tough problems, caring about the dead stream behind your home isn’t something affecting your quality of life.”

Pitzer also pointed to the class divide within the watershed. “A lot of the people who have money in this community are the people who benefitted from the mining in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. There’s this West Virginia problem where we can’t bite the hand that feeds us, so you might think that the polluted streams are wrong, but to get up on your soapbox and demand that it gets fixed can make you look bad.”

“I think people across the watershed have become numb to the issue of AMD, especially people who grew up with it,” Hansen said. “There’s a common thought, ‘That’s just the way it is, and that’s the way it’s gonna be.’ It’s sort of that fatalistic attitude you hear about, which we have witnessed a lot [in Appalachia]. But it’s not universal, you hear a lot of people who’ve been here their whole lives who see it as a problem, who are taking steps to try to fix it.”

Serving as Northern Basin Coordinator for the WV DEP Watershed Improvement Branch, Martin Christ works directly with FOC to aid in construction of AMD treatment systems, develop proposals, and support volunteers. “What I’m interested in is helping people improve the water quality,” Christ said. “[W]e address the issue by trying to make the streams better, and returning the streams [people] live next to to the point where they can support fish, and swim.”

“Both Sides Need Clean Water to Thrive”

But remediating AMD isn’t a simple or inexpensive task. Pitzer claimed it could take centuries for pyrite in the coal beds to dissolve. “This [remediation] work could be reversed,” she said. “We didn’t remove the pyrite from the ground; the pollution producing material is still there. We’re never done.”

AMD remediation is managed via passive and active treatment systems: passive sites contain limestone channels and settlement ponds that neutralize acidity and allow deposition of heavy metals, while active systems utilize “dosers”—silos filled with hydrated lime—to alter water chemistry directly in a stream. Treatment systems require constant operation; the moment a treatment site shuts down, AMD from underground can re-enter the watershed. Maintenance is just as crucial. In 2014, an active doser operated by WVDEP malfunctioned and released its entire contents into the Blackwater River—a major tributary to the Cheat —killing an estimated 23,000 fish.

According to Dr. Nico Zegre, associate professor of forest hydrology and director of the Mountain Hydrology Laboratory at West Virginia University, stopping remediation would result in instant changes to the watershed.

“If the water treatment in the Cheat went away, it would be a very different system with very little uses for that water, if any,” said Zegre. “Cheat Lake, as an important residential area, would certainly feel the brunt of cessation of water treatment activities. That’s why I think we have such an opportunity for [communities] to get together to ensure that society makes decisions to protect those resources.”

He viewed it under a lens of practicality: “I think that’s what’s been asked in the conversation largely between the environmental community and the pro-business community is that both sides need clean water to thrive. Why isn’t there a coalition built upon that?”

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act established the Office of Surface Mining, the federal agency responsible for the creation and enforcement of environmental regulations on surface coal mining. It also created the AML Reclamation Program, which funnels money to help with environmental cleanup to states via a tax on coal, currently set at 28 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and 12 cents per ton for underground-mined coal.

But the AML fund is decreasing. In 2015, U.S. coal production dropped 10.3 percent to its lowest annual production level since 1986; the AML tax was reduced by 20 percent in 2013 (a planned reduction, built into the 2006 reauthorization of the SMCRA). Significant drops in both coal production and the AML tax have been a one-two punch for reclamation. The AML fund collected $194.2 million in fiscal year 2015, down 36 percent from $305.3 million in 2007. West Virginia received $31.8 million in AML grants in 2016, down 25 percent from $39.3 million in 2008.

Pitzer said Trump’s trend of appointing administrators intent on dismantling their agencies coupled with potential defunding of the AML fund are cause for concern for the Cheat River. “It all comes down to money,” she said. “The resources to support restoring abandoned mine lands just aren’t there. It’s expensive, and there aren’t a lot of other [sources] to go through to get hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

If Congress doesn’t reauthorize SMCRA in 2022, it could spell the end of stream restoration. West Virginia would be unable to shoulder the cost of restoration on its own, according to Rob Rice, director of WVDEP’s Office of Abandoned Mine Lands & Reclamation. Rice cautioned, “All progress that is currently being made would stop.”

“This Is Where SMCRA Worked”

With the vote to reauthorize SMCRA still five years away, some might question the urgency. “In all reality, a five-year timeline to get a federal bill reauthorized is urgent,” Pitzer said. “It’s happening now; these conversations have already started.”

One of those conversations took place in June when Rice testified to a U.S. House subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources that: “Legislative deliberations of this scale take a significant amount of time,” noting that the 2006 reauthorization of SMCRA had involved a decade of deliberation. “Our fear is that if it’s not discussed now, while Congress is willing to talk about the AML program, it’s not going to be talked about down the road,” Rice said.

Pitzer also linked threats to SMCRA to Trump’s quiet restructuring of OSM, staff cuts, and closing of positions left vacant by retiring employees. “[OSM], whose existence is authorized by SMCRA, [is] getting pushed around, and for folks in the best position to advocate for the reauthorization of this bill, their jobs are literally being eliminated,” she said. “We’re losing that institutional knowledge …. We’re losing the allies that fought for this stuff from the beginning.”

Snyder, who spends the majority of his days paddling the Cheat, was weary. “I’m concerned about any erosion of the environmental standards, it’s like everyone’s searching for the lowest possible standard to keep things right,” he said. “We saw it change here. We had strip mining sites righted, and it brought back birds, bugs, and animals. This is where SMCRA worked.”

Christ, of the WVDEP Watershed Improvement Branch, remained hopeful. “I hope to see people enjoying the Cheat River, getting in the Cheat River. I hope to see everybody in the county saying, ‘I’m from Preston County, that’s where the Cheat River is, and I’m proud of it.’”

“We see the Cheat as the county’s greatest asset,” Pitzer said. “Outdoor recreation is something to be proud of, something we have to offer. We don’t have to go work in the coal mines to be valuable contributors to the economy, and that’s a hard sell for people who’ve grown up with coal.”