Tomorrow marks a frustrating day for FOC staff and other organizations working to remediate acid mine drainage (AMD) impacted streams and rivers. On September 30, the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fee collection expires, and halts a majority of the future funding FOC and WVDEP could use to treat AMD sources in the Cheat River watershed.
The Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation program fund, part of the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 (SMCRA), authorizes the collection of fees on current coal producers on a per ton coal produced basis. Prior to tomorrow, the fee collection generated the pool of funding available to treat Priority 1, 2, and 3 AMD sites. Many of FOC’s current AMD treatment systems are built on Priority 2 and 3 sites.
Currently, the reauthorization of the AML program is wrapped up in the giant Energy Infrastructure bill, where $11.289 billion is slated for AML, but new regulations concerning the distribution of funding leaves many streams and rivers, including the Cheat, in the lurch.
In the opinion of FOC and many of our partners in AMD, the current version included in the bill is not adequate. It lowers the AML fee by 20%, gives too short of a timeframe to spend out the $11+ billion, doesn’t allow spending on Priority 3 sites – most of which are the AMD problem areas – and doesn’t allow states to put funds in their set-aside accounts that pay for the ongoing costs of AMD treatment.
This is a huge setback to the Cheat River. To put this into perspective, Lick Run Portals, a Priority 3 site, has been the lower Cheat watershed’s largest source of acidity for many years. If no amendments to the bill are passed, this AMD source, and so many others like it, will be left without a clear path forward for remediation. Also, limiting funding for water treatment puts existing long-term restoration projects like that on Muddy Creek at risk, as funding for ongoing operations and maintenance would be restricted.
Update – March 8th: Since our original sampling Thursday evening when pH was 3.65, FOC has pulled several sets of Water Quality (WQ) samples in Muddy Creek and the Cheat River downstream of Muddy. On Friday, we deployed our Muddy Creek live reading sonde, which reports live water quality data to FOC staff remotely every ten minutes. Since then, we have seen improvements in WQ, and pH at the mouth of Muddy Creek now rests at 7.10. You can track the improvements at https://wqdatalive.com/public/1128
The good news is – at this time there is no evidence of a fish kill in Cheat River. Based on our conversations with WVDNR, it appears we are out of the weeds in that regard as long as WQ is maintained as pH neutral. While this event will have serious impacts to the stream community that was beginning to reestablish in Muddy Creek, we are fortunate this event was not as extreme as the earlier blowouts that took place in the 1990s. We will continue to monitor impacts in Muddy Creek and the Cheat River mainstem.
WVDEP have been working hard to contain and treat the acidic water created from the blowout, and our WQ testing shows that the status of Muddy Creek has improved, maintaining a pH level similar to before the blowout. An investigation is currently ongoing to identify the source of the blowout and discuss next steps on preventing a similar event in the future – this is FOC’s biggest concern at the moment in light of climate trends that predict warmer, wetter conditions and more severe flooding events for this area. FOC aims to be at the table during these discussions.
We could not thank you enough for your continued support during this painful event. We will use your donations to advocate for healthier streams, increased protections, and to push our legislators to reauthorize the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act – Abandoned Mine Lands Fee, set to expire in 2021. Without reauthorization, FOC and other groups lose a major funding source to tackle or maintain any AMD treatment sites: a scary thought after the events of last week.
March 5th: It is with heavy hearts that we inform our river community that there has been another blowout related to the T&T mine system, and acidic and metal laden water is again flowing through Muddy Creek. FOC staff noticed the disturbing hue of the water yesterday and found the pH reading 3.65. pH has dropped in the Canyon at “Decision Rapid” to 5.8, and has stained the river right extensively.
The WVDEP’s T&T Treatment Facility was not able to handle the burden of the recent precipitation events. WVDEP released the following press release concerning the blowout – March 5 2020 – DEP investigating blowout at former T&T Mine. With precipitation projected to occur more often and with greater intensity over the next decade, we are left to wonder how often these events may occur. For the fish documented in Muddy Creek and the Canyon, this is a major ecological setback.
This is ever more proof of the risk Abandoned Mine Lands pose to healthy ecosystems, and that our work is not done.
We will continue to push for restored water quality, innovation, and will not accept this as the status quo for Muddy Creek. Now more than ever, SMCRA AML reauthorization will be critical to address the longstanding ecological damage continually caused by abandoned mine lands. We’re not out of the weeds, yet.
Article and Photographs by Adam Webster
In June, I joined two Friends of the Cheat staff members to cast lines into the Cheat River at the mouth of Muddy Creek, hoping to catch a bass, trout, walleye, or maybe even a musky. Truth be told, I think we were hoping to catch any sort of fish since Muddy Creek and the section of the Cheat River below its confluence, known as Cheat Canyon, had been considered “dead” for most of the last 25 years.
Knowing that tens of millions of dollars were spent during that last quarter century to recover water quality in the Cheat River and its tributaries, however, was a promising aspect of our pursuit—we were literally “testing the waters” to see if fish had returned.
Within the last two years, all indicators suggested that fish were indeed returning into Cheat Canyon and beyond. People sharing photos on social media showed fish caught above and below the Muddy Creek confluence. A photo of a musky as long as a Labrador retriever, caught above Muddy Creek, in Albright, sparked dozens of shares and hundreds of “likes” on social media. I still do a double take when I look at that photo—it’s hard to believe.
It’s hard to believe because the Lower Cheat River was known to be polluted for decades. In 1994, the river grabbed national attention after a series of “blowouts” from a coal mine on Muddy Creek poured millions of gallons of acidic water into Cheat Canyon. The water quality became so bad that in 1995 the Cheat River was listed by American Rivers, a river advocacy group, as one of the top 10 most endangered rivers in the United States.
When I first experienced the Cheat Canyon in a raft in the early 1990s, the shorelines were indeed stained fluorescent orange and electric white from pollution, known as acid mine drainage. When I mentioned trying to catch a fish in Cheat Canyon while sitting around a campfire one evening long ago, a wise-cracking river guide handed me a bottle of whiskey and said, “You’ve got about as good of a chance catching a fish in a swill of flavored ethanol as you do in the Canyon.”
My heart sank.
Despite the “whiskey incident,” however, I lugged a fishing pole into Cheat Canyon many times through the years. I wanted to believe that rivers are resilient. I wanted to hold on to a hope that the majesty of the Cheat River wouldn’t always be matched by its tragic condition. I wanted to believe that if I could just catch one fish, maybe things were getting better.
I didn’t catch a single fish anywhere in Cheat Canyon for nearly a decade —at least not anywhere within a few miles of Muddy Creek, that is.
Wading into the water at the mouth of Muddy Creek on a summer afternoon in 2020 with an expectation of catching a fish made me antsy. In fact, I didn’t even grab my fishing pole. I took my camera instead and let Garrett Richardson (Monitoring Technician) and Owen Mulkeen (Associate Director) do the casting. I just wanted to see it happen. These two guys, along with a long list of other FOC staff and partners past and present—made this recovery happen. This was their moment. Not many people can say that in their lifetime they helped bring a dead river back to life.
As those two tied lures to their lines and set out to prove what was once impossible, I admired the view looking downstream into Cheat Canyon. Fifteen years prior, I stood in nearly the exact spot surrounded by life-choking sediments and telltale stains of heavy metals caused by acid mine drainage. The pH, or acidity, of water flowing from Muddy Creek into Cheat River back then was, at times, similar to lemon juice or acid rain. The water flowing from Muddy Creek into the Cheat River today, as a result of a nearly $10 million treatment system built by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, is close enough to “normal” that fish and other aquatic organisms should be able to thrive.
Then it happened.
I heard a splash behind me. Garrett signaled an excited “fish on” sort of smile while standing in the outflow of Muddy Creek into Cheat River. His line was taught, and his fishing pole went into a bend. As he reeled, a feisty fish slapped its tail on the surface. In that instant, I felt as if we turned the page into a new chapter about the Cheat River.
As Garrett released a soda can-sized smallmouth bass back into the river and my mind did a rewind on 25 years of what was and what now is, I recalled words and wishes of characters along the way. In the mid-2000s, in interviews with Dave Bassage and Keith Pitzer, both former FOC Executive Directors, they each described a future in which trout thrived in Muddy Creek and that the Cheat River would recover as an intact ecosystem.
“It may well be that I never get to see trout in Muddy Creek in my lifetime,” Bassage said, “but we’re already seeing bass in Cheat Canyon. So, you take your successes where you can find them,” he said.
Another splish and splash from the corner of my eye and serendipity struck! Garrett was reeling in rainbow trout at the mouth of Muddy Creek.
“We’ll take our successes where we can find them,” I thought to myself.
As the fishing hour was upon us, Owen landed a couple bass on a fly rod and Garrett moved further up into Muddy Creek and showcased a healthy smallmouth bass. In the weeks after our trip, Garrett caught another bass more than a quarter mile upstream in Muddy Creek.
So, what’s next?
First, I hope that bottles of whiskey will be used to celebrate good days of fishing instead of being used to describe water quality in the Cheat River.
On a more serious note, FOC needs your continued support. What does “support” mean? It means making financial contributions to the organization and volunteering to help its restoration, recreation, and community development programs succeed into the future. In many ways, this is just the beginning.
What is evident to me is that the recovery of the Cheat River is no longer just a tale about fixing pollution caused in the past, it is a story about the future and not just what will become of the river, but about what the river will become for its communities.
Friends of the Cheat has been awarded $100,000 from the DTE Foundation to study the removal of the Albright Power Station Dam. Other than the dam at Cheat Lake, this obsolete dam, located 29.3 miles upstream of Cheat Lake, is the only barrier to aquatic passage for migrating species of fish, such as walleye, throughout the entire 78.3 mile-long Cheat River main stem. The Albright Power Station Dam reduces water quality by allowing water to slow and stagnate and is a dangerous hazard to boaters and anglers. The dam is a component of a First Energy coal-fired power plant decommissioned in September 2012. The pool created by the dam once fed the plant’s cooling towers. The plant and dam remain as relics. Removal will eliminate the burdens of maintenance and repair along with any safety concerns.
“Preserving our environment – land, air and water – is a priority for the DTE Energy Foundation,” said Lynette Dowler, president of the DTE Energy Foundation. “We’re proud to support Friends of the Cheat in their work to remove a dam that will improve aquatic life and enhance fishing along this beautiful waterway.” Over the last 25 years, Cheat River water quality has vastly improved. Fish can be found throughout the entirety of the river, and populations in Cheat Lake show continued growth and diversity with over 45 species logged. Removing the Albright Power Station Dam would improve river habitat for aquatic life, including pollution-sensitive walleye and smallmouth bass. Dam removal would also improve water quality for once-present species, including the Eastern Hellbender and freshwater mussels, and could act as a catalyst for restoring and reintroducing these sensitive species in the Cheat River.
Once a liability, the Cheat River is now an asset fueling the recreation renaissance throughout the region. Whitewater paddlers have returned and outfitters are seeing renewed interest. The Cheat River and Lake are hosting annual bass fishing tournaments as well as competitive Global whitewater events. With the dam removed, paddlers could navigate the river 162 miles from its headwaters on Shavers Fork near Snowshoe, WV north to Cheat Lake. Without the dam, both outfitters and private paddlers would benefit through the expansion of access sites and connected river miles enabling new types of trips and experiences (tubing, SUP, multi-day trips, races, etc.)
“Removing the Albright Dam, if found feasible, is the next logical step in our mission to restore the Cheat River,” said Madison Ball, Restoration Program Manager for FOC. “FOC has dedicated 25 years to restoring the Cheat from acid mine drainage, and now we are beginning to reap the rewards; improved water quality and healthy pH, a diversity of fish species recolonizing in the river — including acid-sensitive smallmouth bass and walleye, and renewed interest in river recreation. Removing this barrier allows the river to flow naturally, rather than slow artificially and drop out sediment and other material, and fish and other aquatic life can migrate upstream and downstream as needed in particular life stages.”
A qualified consulting firm will be hired to conduct a reconnaissance level study of the Albright Power Dam. Results of the study will provide information on the current structural integrity of the dam, how much sediment has accumulated behind the dam and its composition, a mapping of the bottom of the river, and calculated anticipated flows. The finished report will also include conceptual plan drawings and two potential options for removal. Additional project highlights include using environmental DNA technology to survey the Cheat River for Eastern Hellbender and collaborating with WVDNR on preliminary fish surveys.
According to The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, “WVDNR has documented incredible improvements to the fisheries of the Cheat River watershed due to improved water quality. Consequently, recreational opportunities such as fishing and kayaking have dramatically increased. To further improve the fisheries and recreational opportunities on Cheat River, WVDNR is in favor of removing the Albright Power Station Dam. The WVDNR anticipates that riverine habitat and angling opportunities on one of the premier smallmouth bass fishing rivers in northern West Virginia will be improved. Additionally, an ever-increasing walleye population in Cheat Lake will have the opportunity to expand upstream past Albright once the dam is removed, potentially providing another recreational opportunity for Cheat River anglers.”
The potential economic and environmental benefits of removing the dam prompted the interest and support of all 4 County Commissions touched by the project, upstream to downstream: Randolph, Tucker, Preston, and Monongalia.
Public involvement is a critical part of this project. FOC and project partners will host the first public open house for community members to learn more and share ideas this fall.
Stay up to date with Friends of the Cheat by reading our State of the Cheat River Watershed Trifold.
2017 was a rollercoaster year for Friends of the Cheat. Our most successful Whitewater Access campaign to date was followed by the coldest, wettest Cheat River Festival ever, with unbelievable mud and low attendance.
Two Meet the Cheat events put record numbers of paddlers on the Cheat River.
While HB 2506, WV drinking water policy changes, gave us nightmares.
Through these ups and downs, you, our incredible core of supporters, have remained steady. Your support empowers us to fight for clean water and continue our mission: to restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed. Your financial donations are integral to our organization; they literally keep our boots on the ground, and our lights on.
Without your sustaining support, Friends of the Cheat could never have grown into the multifaceted, successful nonprofit it is now. Without you, many of our efforts wouldn’t get off the ground. Here’s a glimpse of what your financial contributions supported in just the last year:
FOC has great things planned for 2018! We are adopting the northernmost 28 miles of the Allegheny Trail, West Virginia’s longest foot trail, which runs 330 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line in Bruceton Mills south to the WV-VA border. FOC will be responsible for the maintenance and improvement of our portion – including 12 miles of true hiking trail along the Cheat Canyon. To do this, we will be expanding our Outreach and Education program even more by leading over 600 Adventure WV students in trail-work and community service over the coming summer! Your donations will help purchase the equipment we need to perform the work, and the staff time needed to organize and lead it.
Join FOC in our dedication to safe, healthy water by becoming a sustaining member of Friends of the Cheat. And please ask what we can do for you! We would be happy to present at your local church, your child’s classroom, your clubs and associations. A watershed includes everything within its boundaries, including the people that live and recreate there and we strive to support you too! Together, we can continue to improve this beloved water source that means so much to all of us.
On the first day of the 115th Congress, the House of Representatives passed budget rules that included a provision devaluing public lands. By assigning no value to federal property, Congress has potentially greased the skids for transferring public lands to state or private control — those transactions would now be considered “budget neutral.” Dolly Sods. Seneca Rocks. Cranberry Wilderness. According to the House, with support from all three West Virginia Representatives, these iconic landscapes are deemed worthless.
Our federal public lands have already been bought and paid for by the taxpayer. Look no further than our mountains and rivers for examples. The Monongahela National Forest was created from owners willing to sell logged-out property so the government could rehabilitate the land. The Land and Water Conservation Fund has supported over $182 million in purchases, including access along the Gauley and New Rivers and wetlands in Canaan Valley. As the result of foresighted actions like these, every American is now a shareholder in over 620 million acres of public land.
These public lands are big business. Congress commissioned a study to understand the value of outdoor recreation, currently estimated at $646 billion. Public land is at the heart of that economy; after all, who would buy new boots or boats if they have nowhere to use them? In state, the Monongahela National Forest supports 1.3 million visitors that spend approximately $82 million dollars annually. The New River Gorge National River provides another $53 million to the local economy. There is likely even more tangible value in the “ecosystem services” offered by public lands: much of West Virginia’s drinking water originates in the headwaters of the Monongahela National Forest — over 300,000 thousand people get their drinking water from the Elk River alone.
The return on our investment in public lands goes far beyond dollars and cents. A rafting trip with friends, a hike with a pet, a day spent hunting and fishing with our children — how can you quantify the value of those experiences and the feelings that linger long after? Or the connectedness and sense of place that public lands offer? The “Mon” serves as a common denominator among hunters, birders, boaters, fishers, campers, RV towers, bikers, hikers, and climbers. We may enjoy the land in different ways, but every Mountaineer loves and takes pride in our public lands, the most “Wild and Wonderful” part about living in West Virginia.
The new budget rule isn’t the only attack on the integrity of public lands. Bills have been introduced to allow states to seize two million acres of national forests so long
as logging is the priority (HR 3650 & HR 2316). Transferring control of and developing public land is the stated platform of the party that now leads all three branches of government. Congress may very well have taken the first step in a widespread public lands divestment.
Loss of federal ownership could be detrimental to public land users like you and me. Federal lands are managed with mandatory public input and “multiple use” provisions that value clean water and recreation alongside timber and minerals. States often have different priorities. Western sportsmen have found themselves shut out of state lands following profit minded sell-offs. Because the West Virginia state legislature is prohibited from passing a deficit, selling or developing state land could become a quick fix for our financial woes. Mineral rights have been auctioned off beneath some of our Wildlife Management Areas.
President Trump has said we need to be stewards of public lands and it’s not something that should be sold. His pick for Secretary of the Interior, Rep. Ryan Zinke, is an avid sportsman who has spoken out against selling public lands — but he voted for the new budget rule. All Representatives from West Virginia voted in favor of it too. We must hold our leadership accountable. Tell them to protect our public lands from sale or transfer.
Because worthless and priceless are far from the same thing.
Matt Kearns is a veteran and avid outdoorsman. He travelled the length of the Elk River in 2015 to promote the connection between the Monongahela National Forest and our drinking water. Matt is a natural resources graduate student at WVU and works on public lands issues for the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition. the Elk River alone.
Just weeks after Congress passed a provision making it easier to sell off public lands, a move to do just that was put forth by US Representative Jason Chaffetz (UT). H.R. 621, Disposal of Excess Federal Lands Act, called for the disposal of 3.3 million acres of land for sale to non-federal entities.
The public outcry was enormous. Thousands of people called their representatives and took to social media to express their outrage and rallied in opposition to the bill. Thanks to the huge numbers of engaged, outspoken public opponents, in less than one week Chaffetz posted on Instagram his withdrawal of H.R. 621.
This victory is just one example of what can happen when citizens rally together and speak out; our voices are heard, and we can protect what cannot protect itself. This will not be the only time we need to rally for our public lands, or for our water, etc. We must remain vigilant and alert. Here are a few ways to stay engaged.
Sign up for WV Rivers Coalition e-news (state and Federal updates, action alerts): http://www.wvrivers.org/make-
Sign up for WV Environmental Council e-news (WV updates, action alerts): http://wvecouncil.org/action-a
Join Friends of the Cheat and other groups for E-Day February 27th at the WV Capitol.
Contact your representatives:
US Senate: https://www.senate.gov/senato
Since 1994, Friends of Cheat has been working to fulfill its mission of restoring, preserving, and promoting the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed. As a supporter of our organization, you may wonder exactly what that means. The quick answer is that without your support – your financial contributions, your volunteering, your help spreading the word about our work – without you, our mission would mean very little. Our successes, our needs, and the river we all love – depend on your help. Conversely, this mission is a reflection of the many achievements Friends of Cheat can accomplish with your support.
Over the years, the backing and financial contributions of supporters like you has ultimately allowed our organization to expand its programming and make impactful on-the-ground improvements in the watershed. Today, because of you, we are engaged in all the core actions of our mission statement.
In just the last year, your financial contributions have helped Friends of the Cheat:
Other reasons 2016 rocked – FOC/DEPP partnership has been renewed for another 3 years! We hired a new technician, Brian Hurley – as Jeremy Sidebottom left to further his education and travel the world. FOC was named Top Water Conservation Group in the Southeast by Blue Ridge Outdoors.
And best of all – The Cheat River was one of 2016 EPA 319 Success Stories – declaring the Cheat River “reborn!”
Since returning to the area in September to work with Friends of the Cheat, I’ve been fortunate to spend many of my days reacquainting myself with familiar old reaches of the Cheat River, and exploring a few new ones as well. I am again in awe of the diversity of the paddling opportunities awaiting the enterprising boater in this vast free-flowing drainage. I am captivated by the raw, wild, mostly forgotten corners of the landscape that are waiting to help you find yourself, if you can first put yourself out there. Each day on the river has brought me a new experience, a new perspective: Autumn color swirling in eddies; spying on a sleepy, bashful black bear in his home turf; the cold, lonely winter evenings spent chasing daylight, with the sounds of the wind and water as loyal company; charging down the unforgiving and breathtaking tannic waters of the class-V upper reaches; lazy summer floats, soaking in the warm sun all day with friends; waking up on the riverbank wearing an extra layer of dew; exploring the subaquatic realm at the Alley. Getting my feet wet once again.
FOC was recently honored to play host to a number of national river conservation leaders, here from all over the country to attend this year’s River Rally conference in nearby Pittsburgh. We had the opportunity to paddle the newly protected Cheat Canyon during one day of their stay, and it made for another memorable day on the river. A number of the visitors were skilled kayakers capable of navigating the unfamiliar rapids of the Canyon with confidence; the remainder rode in one of several inflatable Shredders and rafts. Several FOC staff, Board members, and friends eagerly joined the crew to guide rafts and share our home river with these friendly visitors.
With the excitement of the recently announced Canyon purchase still thick in the air, the group shoved off from the FOC access point at the festival site to float the 9 mile stretch to Jenkinsburg Bridge. With flows around 900cfs, which is toward the lower end of quality water levels for small rafts, we were in no hurry – leaving us with all the more opportunity to absorb the scenery and explore the little nooks and crannies of this magnificent place. With such a large, free-flowing drainage, flows vary greatly in the Canyon, both seasonally and with day to day precipitation. These wild waters ensure that the rapids are never the same from one day to the next: from the thundering high volume rapids of spring to the tight technical lines and long pools in late summer only navigable by patient boaters in small crafts. On this particular day we were fortunate to have an ideal moderate water level for our trip, as well as fantastic weather. Overcast skies kept the sun off our shoulders, but never delivered on the forecasted high winds and thunderstorms until we were back under the cover of the Eloise Morgan Milne Pavilion at the day’s end. Good lines were had by all – with only one rafter going for an unexpected swim and quick recovery, at the top of the rapid known as “tear-drop”.
Five years ago I sustained a shoulder injury that ended the raft guiding career that first led me to call the Cheat River home. After surgery and an extensive period of rehabilitation, exploring rivers by kayak has once again become a major component of my life – this time with new respect and perspective. However, I had mostly left guiding rafts behind as I’d focused my attention on other pursuits. This day on the Canyon marked my first time in a raft in several years, and I’d almost forgotten just how rewarding it can be to share a place like the Canyon, a place that I know and love, with people that may not find themselves there otherwise. I couldn’t have asked for better company. It was a real treat for me and the rest of the FOC crew to see the excitement and intrigue on the faces of so many fellow river lovers and advocates from all over the country. These were folks that are no stranger to outstanding rivers worthy of diligent conservation efforts, and I have no doubt that the Cheat left an impression just as it has on many of us over the years.
The orange stained rocks visible in parts of the Canyon serve as a not-so-subtle reminder of the Cheat’s troubled past, and need for ongoing treatment efforts. Yet around every bend, we saw a river teeming with life. At one point a large fish leapt high out of a calm pool before splashing back down onto the glassy surface. With only one river bend between us and the high truss bridge at Jenkinsburg, a bald eagle swooped down out of the tree line on river right before banking a wide turn boldly displaying its unmistakable white markings and flying upstream right over our group and out of sight. Eagles are no longer an uncommon sight in the Canyon, but they remain an exciting reminder that the lower Cheat is once again home to a healthy aquatic ecosystem capable of supporting top predators. While there is certainly much more work to be done, a trip through the Canyon today will leave no doubt that we’ve come a long way in the last twenty years.