Beginning in the 1970s, whitewater paddlers on the Cheat River observed water quality becoming increasingly degraded by acid mine drainage (AMD) discharging from abandoned mine lands and active coal mine operations. Rocks in the river were stained with a bright orange color that became more apparent in the Cheat River Canyon each year. People who came from nearby states to raft and kayak complained of stinging eyes, nosebleeds, and other ailments after having spent time in the Cheat’s waters.
Mouth of Muddy Creek, Cheat River near Albright, WV
In the spring of 1994, polluted water from an illegally-sealed major underground coal mine blew out the hillside and poured into Muddy Creek. This massive release of mine water entered the main stem of the Cheat River just upstream of the Cheat Canyon, and turned the river orange for miles. The resulting discharge impacted not only the Cheat Canyon, but also lowered the pH in Cheat Lake to 4.5, killing fish as far away as 16 miles downstream. A second blowout in 1995 further accentuated the problem and caused American Rivers, Inc., a national river conservation organization, to name the Cheat as one of the nation’s ten most endangered rivers. Following the mine blowouts, the Cheat’s whitewater industry suffered over a 50% drop in business, while whitewater participation increased nationally by 33% during the same time period.
Water quality had been bad for many years, but the mine blowouts forced the issue into the consciousness of a greater public audience. In response to the mine blowouts, concerned citizens and stakeholders organized Friends of the Cheat (FOC) to begin to address the problems resulting from over a century of coal mining. The two founding principles of the organization were:
1) To restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed
2) To foster a cooperative effort by state and federal agencies, private industry, academics, grassroots organizations, and local landowners to address the severe AMD issues in the Cheat River watershed.
Acting on these principles in 1995, FOC facilitated the formation of the River of Promise Task Force, a group of diverse stakeholders committed to restoring the Cheat River watershed. The Task Force includes local, state, and federal agencies as well as academia, industry, local businesses, and other non-governmental organizations. This strong network of stakeholders has enabled FOC to grow from a small group of volunteers to a full-time staff of three and one Office of Surface Mining/Volunteer In Service To America (OSM/VISTA).
To celebrate and raise awareness for the continued restoration of the Cheat River, FOC has hosted the Cheat River Festival on the river banks near Albright each May since 1995. The festival features an assortment of great music, delicious food, outdoor vendors, climbing wall, Art Market, and kids’ activities. Festival goers can test their athletic ability by participating in the 5K Foot Race or the Cheat Canyon Downriver Race. The Cheat River Festival has historically been a great demonstration of public support for FOC, environmental stewardship, and access to the Cheat River’s outstanding natural and recreational qualities.
Since its founding, FOC and its partners have celebrated many successes including the implementation of fifteen treatment systems to remediate acid mine drainage as well as the removal of the Cheat River main stem from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) 303(d) list of impaired waters. In 2004, FOC drafted a Watershed Based Plan to delineate the various pollution problems within the watershed. The plan, approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), also outlines remediation efforts targeted at solving pollution problems. Fish can once again be found in the Cheat Canyon and both Sovern Run and Big Sandy Creek are on the verge of removal from the state’s 303(d) of impaired streams. Although much work still remains, the Cheat River is steadily recovering.
Friends of the Cheat’s ongoing monitoring and remediation efforts are improving the health of the river and the environment for all.