Efforts to Save the Cheat River Chart Clearer Course Forward
The State Journal
29 November 2016
By Michael Virtanen
PRESTON COUNTY, W.Va. (AP)
The Cheat River flows pale green and slate gray, glistening in the
sunshine as it gathers speed, turns to whitewater and drops
between rocks on the way toward the Monongahela River. From there
it makes its way to the Ohio River and the drinking water of
millions of people.
As West Virginia pushes toward an uncertain economic future, a
river that once flowed bright orange charts a course out of
mining's toxic legacies.
The state recently joined conservationists to protect the Cheat's
eight-mile whitewater canyon, collectively buying 3,800 acres from
timber investors for $7 million. A new $8 million water treatment
plant next year should help alleviate ongoing acid drainage from
an abandoned underground coal mine that blew out in 1994, spewing
acid and metals.
"In the East, it's a rare opportunity where you get to protect
eight river miles along an area that not only has tremendous
biodiversity but also has a lot of recreational opportunities
available," said the Nature Conservancy's Keith Fisher, a
Even with President-elect Donald Trump promising a coal industry
comeback, most West Virginians have adapted to a world in which
other economic engines are needed to revive one of the nation's
poorest states. The two-decade effort to reclaim the Cheat River
and its tributaries fits into a broader push to grow tourism in
West Virginia, where visitors already spend about $4.5 billion
"Our tourism possibilities in this state are limitless,"
Governor-elect Jim Justice said during the campaign. An
outdoorsman and mine owner, he told The Associated Press after
winning that he wants to protect the state's air, water and
natural beauty, saying it can co-exist with coal.
The Cheat also has a more tangible connection to West Virginia's
coal legacy. Like many waterways in coal-producing states, it
remains threatened by mine drainage that turns water acidic.
The state Department of Environmental Protection calls the
acidification of waterways coal's "biggest environmental problem,"
affecting hundreds of miles of West Virginia rivers and streams,
usually from abandoned mines where those who caused it are long
gone. The agency says the Monongahela, Tug Fork, North Branch of
the Potomac and several other rivers have all been affected.
The Cheat is clear to the bottom and shallow in November, unlike
the spring surge that rises above boulders and draws peak-season
rafters and kayakers down the canyon. Its steep walls are lined
with hardwoods, oaks, hickories and maples still dropping amber
leaves. The water remains high enough to carry small boats.
Part of the 330-mile Allegheny Trail runs parallel for eight
miles, high on the river's east rim. The narrow, grassy former
logging tract was once designated for a rail line. Now it's
reopened to hikers, fishermen and hunters and closed to
all-terrain vehicles. Commercial rafters never stopped using their
rights to a navigable waterway, though they lost business after
"Cheat River is so much better than it used to be," said Doug
Wood, a retired state biologist. "As a drinking water source it's
much better than it was before."
Downstream drinking water systems all have to treat their intake
from the rivers for bacteria and other contaminants, some more
Its acidity was toxic to virtually all aquatic life after the 1994
mine blowout released massive drainage outflows into a tributary,
"The Cheat was already a pretty severely polluted river," said
Randy Robinson, then a rafting guide who was on it shortly after
the blowout and remembers the nasty, sulfurous smell. "It was like
orange paint had been dumped in the river in a way."
The orange coating on the rocks from iron hydroxide, which
persisted for years, has disappeared. The acid levels have been
sharply reduced through dozens of water-treatment projects, proven
by both testing and the abundance of freshwater fish in Cheat
Lake, a downstream river impoundment that has attracted an enclave
of upscale homes and townhouses outside Morgantown.
According to Wood, acid drainage is a fairly predictable matter of
coal geology, where the nearby rock also contains iron disulfide.
With mining, it will produce iron hydroxide and sulfuric acid when
combined with oxygen and water that eventually finds a path down
"The problems with the Cheat should have educated our permitting
agencies, a long time ago, to prevent them from issuing permits
that are going to result in perpetual acid mine drainage," Wood
said. He said that hasn't happened. Restoring an affected waterway
afterward requires costly, active treatment, he said.
The state permitting agency said it does consider geology among
many factors. Permits aren't approved unless an operation is
deemed to meet all federal and state legal requirements,
spokeswoman Kelley Gillenwater said.
Amanda Pitzer, executive director of Friends of the Cheat,
volunteers who monitor and work on its restoration, said the pH
level, which is neutral at 7, dropped to toxic 3 and 4 after the
The Muddy Creek tributary looks milky green now, still showing
effects of drainage that also includes aluminum. The creek, though
improved, still has no fish.
David McCoy, a state engineer, said 3.4 miles of Muddy Creek still
usually test acidic, and the Cheat itself now tests neutral. The
new filtration system will use two 80-foot clarifiers, a 100-ton
silo and hydrated lime to counter the acidity and capture the
sludge of metals that settle out. That sludge will be piped to an
injection well underground at a higher elevation.
The Nature Conservancy emphasizes a "pragmatic" approach, working
with businesses to promote best practices for limiting
environmental impact. The economics of the transition from West
Virginia's post-mining economy can't be ignored, said Fisher, the
state chapter's director of conservation, and should include
recreation and land and water restoration.
All of that brings him back to the big question he and others are
trying to answer. Standing on the trail, high above the softly
rumbling river, he said it's about the transition from a
coal-dependent economy to something else: "How do you make
conservation and economic diversity work together?"