DEP Kicks Off Plans to Restore Coal River

Charleston Gazette
10 December 2014
By Rick Steelhammer, Staff writer

ST. ALBANS, W.Va. — The state Department of Environmental Protection has committed $1 million to plan and begin a stream restoration project targeting the main stem of the Coal River from Alum Creek to its confluence with the Kanawha River at St. Albans, according to the DEP and the Coal River Group, a nonprofit watershed association.

The section of the lower Coal targeted for restoration “has been severely impacted over the past 70 years by coal mining and highway, commercial and residential construction,” said Bill Currey, co-founder of the Coal River Group, which sought the project.

“The first step will be to study the full 21 miles of river that make up the lower Coal River. We expect that study to be augmented by existing studies of E. coli sources, riparian [riverbank] impacts and storm water flows in the St. Albans area.”

Currey said sedimentation is the primary impediment to water quality in the lower Coal.

“A heavy layer of silt covering the bedrock restricts the natural flow of the river and eliminates most forms of aquatic life,” he said. “Clearly, the river needs the addition of man-made structures which can provide a natural way to move silt from clogged areas. The fish counts have been way down on the lower Coal.”

Upstream, fish surveys have produced favorable results at the recently completed $5 million stream improvement project on the Little Coal River. That project, made possible with funding and expertise from the DEP, the CRG, the West Virginia Conservation Agency, the state Division of Natural Resources and West Virginia University, involved the installation of 300 V-shaped rock and log stream structures designed to constrict the stream channel to flush silt from river-bottom cobbles and bedrock and create pools and riffles, enhancing habitat for fish and the aquatic insects on which they feed.

But the removal of one man-made Coal River structure could be a possible outcome of the upcoming study, Currey said.

“The remains of the dam at Upper Falls provides a special challenge to any river restoration in that section,” he said.The dam was built in the 1880s to power the Roman Pickens gristmill, which operated until 1953. “The dam was rebuilt in the 1960s, and is now crumbling,” Currey said.

The dam, which fronts the CRG headquarters building at Meadowood Park, diverts much of the Coal River’s flow through an old navigation lock chamber and has negligible flood control value, Currey said. Prior to the dam’s installation, the free-flowing river dropped 8 feet over a series of ledges, he said.

Currey said another major blockage site for silt can be found at the mouth of the Coal, which used to be dredged regularly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Motorboat access to the Coal from the Kanawha is now made “by following a 20-foot-wide channel on river left that’s only 2 to 4 feet deep,” Currey said.

In another Coal River water quality development, Currey said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the Lower Coal River Watershed Based Plan, prepared by the CRG with help from the DEP and the West Virginia Conservation Agency, to identify pollution from sources without discharge permits — often failing septic systems.

The plan, which encompasses the area from Tornado to the mouth of the Coal in St. Albans, focuses on identifying discharge sites with substandard fecal coliform bacteria levels and outlines potential management practices aimed at correcting them.

Currey said he was hopeful that the EPA’s acceptance of the plan will lead to funding to fix failing septic tanks in the watershed.

“The CRG has been looking for ways to tackle failing septic tanks for years,” said Currey. “We made great strides with the Greater St. Albans Public Service District’s sewer expansion project, but this watershed plan will address the homes that cannot be connected to public sewer systems.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at or 304-348-5169.