The Flat-spired three-toothed Snail (Triodopsis platysayoides) is one of the rarest land snails in the world, and is only found within our Cheat River Canyon. This snails’ habitat is restricted to small areas of the canyon that have sandstone cliffs, outcroppings and large boulders. The snail lives in cracks and crevices in the rocks and surrounding leaf litter, and is primarily active at night. Optimum snail activity occurs during spring and early summer, especially during cool, moist weather conditions. The three-toothed snail feeds on a varied diet of over 20 or so documented foods, including several aged leaves and flower blossoms, fresh catkins, pack rat feces, lichens, mushrooms, and crickets.
The shell of Triodopsis platysayoides is pale brown, thin, and coiled to the right with 5 whorls. It is extremely flattened in shape unlike many other species of snails with a cone-like shell. Adult Triodopsis platysayoides are a bit less than an inch across, or a little smaller than a quarter.
Because of the snails’ limited habitat range, they are vulnerable to many natural or human caused disturbances like hikers and bikers inadvertently disrupting the leaf litter cover and crushing them, as well as timbering, housing developments, and forest fires. Recovery efforts for this animal have included fencing occupied habitat (to keep humans away) and the land acquisition of approximately 1,100 acres of snail habitat within the Charlotte Ryde Nature Preserve.
An interesting fact about a mature Flat-spired three-toothed Snail is that it is actually hermaphroditic. A mating pair has the ability to cross-fertilize, and each may lay eggs. These eggs are buried in soil or leaf litter, and once hatched young snails can grow rapidly – reaching maturity within their first year.
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.
The WV Department of Environmental Protection is receiving public comments on the construction stormwater permit for a large development planned along Big Sandy Creek and Laurel Run in Preston County.
Friends of the Cheat is gathering more information on the permit application and encourages concerned citizens to help request a public hearing by writing to WVDEP before Sunday, March 7, 2021.
You can email WVDEP Sharon Mullins, Permitting Section at: Sharon.A.Mullins@wv.gov
Include your name and contact information and the permit number: WVR111041
Any interested person may submit written comments on the site registration permit application and may request a public hearing by addressing such to the Director of the Division of Water and Waste Management within 30 days of the date of the public notice. Such comments or requests should be addressed to:
Director, Division of Water and Management, DEP
ATTN: Sharon Mullins, Permitting Section
601 57th Street SE
Charleston, WV 25304-2345
Comments received within this period will be considered prior to acting on the permit application. Correspondence should include the name, address and the telephone number of the writer and a concise statement of the nature of the issues raised. The Director shall hold a public hearing whenever a finding is made, on the basis of requests, that there is a significant degree of public interest on issues relevant to the site registration permit application and this facility’s coverage under the General Permit. Interested persons may contact the Public Information Office to obtain further information.
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.
“Happy 100th Birthday Monongahela National Forest! FOC directly benefits from the Monongahela National Forest, as over 30% of our Cheat River watershed is protected by these forested lands. Without receiving the outstanding water quality that comes from our tributaries protected by the Monongahela National Forest, it is questionable if the Cheat River would have been able to make the recovery it has today. Some iconic areas protected by the Monongahela National Forest that fall in the Cheat River Watershed include: Dolly Sods Wilderness, Bickle Knob, Cheat Summit Fort, Otter Creek Wilderness, Glady Fork, Laurel Fork Wilderness, Gandy Creek, and Gaudineer Knob to name a few!” – Madison Ball, FOC Restoration Program Manager
April 28 marks the 100-year anniversary (#MNF100) of the establishment of Monongahela National Forest. In 1920, following the passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation designating land purchased for the protection of the Monongahela River as Monongahela National Forest. Since that time, the Forest has grown from an initial 7,200 acres to more than 900,000 acres, all in West Virginia. The Forest continues to benefit the public more than ever by providing recreational opportunities, a wide variety of forest products, and abundant natural resources for all to enjoy.
“We invite everyone to celebrate with us on April 28, in spirit and online, 100 years of caring for the land and serving the public on this National Forest,” said Shawn Cochran, Forest Supervisor. “I’d like to thank the State of West Virginia, our partners, volunteers, as well as past and present Forest Service employees who have served and dedicated themselves over the years to caring for this land that belongs to all of us.”
You can help celebrate the Forest’s birthday online at the following locations:
Be sure to check out the Forest’s website at https://www.fs.usda.gov/mnf
Special thanks to the Appalachian Forest National Heritage Area for assisting with planning the Forest’s Centennial and sharing information with the public. Learn more about them and link to their social media platforms at https://www.
Hey there Cheat River friends. How are you? Overall, I’ve been feeling good during my first global pandemic experience. My day-to-day hasn’t changed that much here in rural West Virginia. The biggest adjustment has been working from home, and I’m thankful to my co-workers and colleagues for their commitment and flexibility during this transition. I miss seeing my friends, but I’m talking to my mom more. There are baby goats in the pasture next door, and just watching them brings me joy. I miss our big gardens, and I wish we weren’t looking for a house to buy right now, but we will figure it out. Heck, I remembered how to cook!
I was overcome with sadness when the truth-saying-troubadour John Prine passed away last week from Covid-19. FOC alum Ellie Bell concurred that he was “good” and losing him meant losing a bit of good in this world. I let those feelings snowball and was soon at my lowest point of that day/week/month – what day is it anyway?
From those I’ve been communicating with, this roller coaster of emotion sounds common. As you can likely imagine, this composition has been hard for me to write. I’m sad that Cheat Fest is cancelled, and the challenges that lie ahead for FOC are daunting, but I am confident they are do-able, because we have all of you.
I’ve been thinking more about people who don’t have a support system. This crisis has highlighted vast inequalities in our society and failures in our systems. We aren’t just staying home and sewing masks, we are figuring out how to feed hungry kids, the legal way to administer telemedicine, and how to communicate with and care for our seniors. And what about those who are entirely left out and discriminated against? I wish I could do more.
I have reduced my news intake, but I have been hearing a lot about getting “back to normal” lately. I’m hopeful normal will be better for everyone. What will that path look like, and how do we know if we are even on it? Back to “normal?” I want to go forward, I want to go downstream – don’t you?
I call this column Sinuosity. A river’s sinuosity is its tendency to meander back and forth across its floodplain over time. A river with a high sinuosity would have an “S” path, winding back and forth. I think this is the kind of path we are on right now, as individuals and as a society. As our stream path moves across the landscape, it leaves behind evidence of where the river once was. Like oxbow lakes or scars of rubble, we have evidence of our prior paths we can examine. But, unlike nature, we can get out of these paths, these ruts that take us back to almost the same place we were before.
We have a unique opportunity to live more deliberately during this time. We can create new, healthier, happier paths. Many of my friends are taking hold of this opportunity – doing a cleanse, organizing old photos, getting a new puppy. They hope to create new habits and come out of this different – different on their own terms versus letting an obstruction direct their path.
I love spring in West Virginia. It is a time of growth and hope. The red buds along the Narrows are popping. FOC projects are still popping, too. Despite 2020 being off to a really, REALLY awful start, I am so fortunate to be happy, healthy, and working with Friends of the Cheat. I hope to connect with many of you during virtual Cheat Fest week. Tune into my virtual Education Eddy episode to learn about our progress on removing the Albright dam and to literally “see” what else I’ve been working on these last few months.
FOC is partnering with the Preston County Chamber of Commerce BAD Buildings Committee to encourage Preston County residents to clean-up their local roadsides and individual homes and properties during Clean-Up Preston Month!
FOC staff will be participating individually and with our pandemic isolation partners on Earth Day – Wed. April 22nd. Join in by organizing your own safe pickup and tag us on Facebook @friendsofthecheat or Instagram @cheatriverfriends.
Roadside clean-up supplies including bags and pickers are available by calling Preston County Litter Control Officer Jay Sowers at (304) 698-5594. Participants may also use their own bags. Please gather bags/debris to a single, easy access area. For collection, please promptly contact
Officer Sowers at (304) 698-5594.
Safe at home with time for projects around your own home, or want to do something nice for an essential worker’s home while they continue working to ensure the safety of us all? .
Take a “before” photo of an area that needs some cleaning or maintenance, then take an “after” photo after you’ve improved the area. Post it on Facebook and/or Instagram with #cleanuppreston @prestonchamber or @friendsofthecheat.
The Preston County Chamber will select four winners (!) who will receive a gift certificate to a local restaurant offering take-out, courtesy of the Preston County Chamber of Commerce. .
It’s a WIN-WIN! We can support local restaurants, enjoy a cleaner, happier community and show our pride in the place we are so lucky to call home. #prestoncountyproud.
Please stay close to home, and conduct clean-up activities only with your families and isolation-buddies following CDC recommended physical distancing guidelines. Do not organize large groups or carpools. Groups violating these rules will be eliminated from the contest.
For collection, please promptly contact
Officer Sowers at (304) 698-5594.
Also, for self-disposal the Kingwood Transfer Station is currently open Monday-Friday from 7:00 am – 3:00 pm with no loads accepted later than 2:30 pm. Items not accepted are: yard waste, burnt lumber, liquids and appliances with freon. Contact the Transfer Station at (304) 329-3235.
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.
Friends of The Cheat was awarded $50,000 by the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) for a technical assistance project that will result in the creation of the first comprehensive Trail Plan within the newly formed Mountaineer Trail Network. Centered in Preston County, West Virginia, this countywide Trail Plan will map all existing trail resources, highlight existing connection gaps, and identify trail routes that would link existing amenities to other key trails and recreation hubs in the region. As the first Trail Plan of its kind within the Mountaineer Trail Network, this plan will serve as a model to be replicated in the network’s other nine counties.
“Friends of The Cheat is excited about our first grant award from ARC and particularly eager to begin work on expanding the recreational opportunities in Preston County and beyond. We are proud to partner with Downstream Strategies and PCPARC on this comprehensive project that will lead to the creation of a trail plan template for other surrounding counties to adopt and integrate into the larger Mountaineer Trail Network. Recreational trails and the promotion of outdoor recreation are a path forward for coal-transitioning economies, and we are honored to lead the way.”
Associate Director of Friends of The Cheat
Today’s announcement is one of 54 investments totaling $44.4 million via ARC’s POWER (Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization) Initiative, a congressionally funded opportunity targeting federal resources to help communities and regions that have been affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations, and coal-related supply chain industries due to the changing economics of America’s energy production. Additional support for Friends of The Cheat’s project is provided by FOC’s RE/CREATE AML Pilot Grant. Programmatic and marketing expenses for the Preston Trail Towns Program, which provides critical support to build local capacity for recreation and tourism development, directly complements the focus of the ARC project.
“I congratulate Friends of The Cheat for being an FY 2019 POWER grantee, and commend them on the leadership they have shown in their community,” said ARC Federal Co-Chairman Tim Thomas. “POWER grants are playing a critical role in supporting coal-impacted communities in the Appalachian Region as they diversify economies, invest in growth-oriented infrastructure, train a next-generation workforce, and ingrain resiliency and hope into their local fabric. Projects like this help ensure a prosperous future for Appalachia.”
About the Appalachian Regional Commission
The Appalachian Regional Commission (www.arc.gov) is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 420 counties across the Appalachian Region. ARC’s mission is to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the Region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation.
Issue Date: April 11, 2018
Questions Due in Writing: Friday, April 27, 2018 at 5:00pm EST
Submission Deadline: Tuesday, May 8, 2018 at 4:00pm EST
Friends of Cheat (FOC) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization located in Kingwood, West Virginia, dedicated to restoring, preserving, and promoting the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed. FOC is working in partnership with the West Virginia State Rail Authority (WVSRA) to purchase and develop rail corridor formerly owned by CSXT for conversion to a non-motorized, recreational rail-trail. FOC seeks proposals from qualified consultant teams, including a WV Licensed Professional Engineer (PE) and Licensed Remediation Specialist (LRS), to provide design and engineering services for the development of a plans, specifications, and engineering package (PS&E) for the trail corridor identified as BAJ 3.0 and BAJ 11.7, Manheim to Caddell.
The Cheat River Rail-Trail project is funded in part by grants from the Federal Highway Administration’s Recreational Trails Program administered by the West Virginia Department of Transportation, Division of Highways. Design and control of the project must be in conformance with the guidelines of the Recreational Trails Program and all applicable State and Federal Regulations. All work will be in accordance with all pertaining Federal and State laws, rules, and regulations.
View the full RFP here: FOC RFP_CheatRT_2018
I had the pleasure of attending part of WVDEP’s Office of Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation’s annual staff training event at the end of January. Director Rob Rice invited me to make a presentation to his team, and David Petry, our Program Manager, was able to attend as well. The event conveniently followed Preston County Day at the Legislature, but before I made the trip east over I-64 to the MSHA training facility in Beaver, I stopped by the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences. Kingwood native Nathan Jones works for the Clay Center and encouraged me to visit after spotting me in the Capitol during lunch. The center’s exhibits are ever-evolving; Water Works and the Maier Foundation Music Studio will turn anyone into a giggly kid. The hands-on fun proved to be just what I needed after a long day at the Capitol. Once I arrived in Beaver, I was pleasantly surprised to find more play happening at the training center—DEP staff were engaged in a pretty intense game of basketball. I didn’t have gym clothes so I stood on the sideline in my dress and boots as a spectator. I’m not sure whose team won, but next year I know I want John Knight and Sheila Vulkovich on my team. I always felt Rob was a good manager and confident leader, and having this opportunity to interact with the AML crew in a more casual atmosphere only reinforced that notion.
It was not lost on me that David and I were the only non-agency employees in attendance. Also, I’ll admit that the given title of my presentation, “Thoughts on AML from Outside the Agency,” was unique and a little intimidating. I don’t sweat most speeches, but I felt I owed it to these people to honor their work, while also voicing FOC’s concerns around policy interpretation and proposed DEP rule changes. AML working more closely with the Office of Special Reclamation as well as the reorganization of WVDEP (which we believe is a very good thing), I also took the opportunity to reinforce FOC’s position and concerns surrounding in-stream versus at-source water treatment in Muddy Creek.
Deputy Director Mike Sheehan reported that the long-anticipated T&T treatment system, on Rt. 26 outside Albright, went active in late December. The multi-million dollar system is currently treating water from the old T&T site as well as water from “Ruthbell #3”/Preston Energy UO-235, which is no longer flowing completely untreated into Muddy Creek. Sheehan also shared that DEP received their final approval from EPA on the variance to water quality standards they requested on Fickey Run, Glade Run, and Martin Creek. Understandably, FOC still has some heartburn over the variance method, as we believe circumventing the Clean Water Act and drastically lowering pollution limits for this entire watershed is a bad precedent to set.
However, looking downstream, FOC has two more pressing concerns which I shared with the group. First, maintaining consistent treatment is necessary to realize full restoration of aquatic communities in lower Muddy Creek. Stream bugs and fish need clean water all the time. This will become increasingly more important as macroinvertebrates and fish return to the creek. One mishandled high water flush or a malfunction in technology (as seen on the Blackwater River in 2014) could wipe out progress. The second concern is rooted in the intention of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), which was to ensure that each coal company posted a bond sufficient enough to cover the costs of reclamation. Bonds are not created by throwing darts at a wall – they are supposed to be estimates that ensure total reclamation, including expensive at-source acid mine drainage (AMD) treatment. The variance to water quality standards allows DEP an alternative approach to at-source AMD treatment. For example, instead of engineering, constructing, and maintaining 10 treatment systems, they are now able to treat in-stream, constructing and maintaining 1 in-stream doser and the collection pipeline to T&T. This also means fewer NPDES-regulated sampling points and the resources needed to collect, analyze, manage, and report data.
Looking at these example figures and applying a 20 year timeframe, one can quickly see the huge cash savings. And don’t forget, in reality, DEP is liable for treatment in perpetuity.
At-Source [10 systems @ $1M capital construction + (10 systems @ $100K/year operations and maintenance for 20 years)] = $30,000,000
In-Stream [1 in-stream doser @ $500K + $1M pipeline construction + ($350K/year operations and maintenance for 20 years)] = $8,500,000
This is great cost-savings, but who is really getting the deal? The monies collected and dedicated to funding this clean-up program come from the coal industry – the bond pool and a special reclamation tax on active coal mining.
We have heard over and over that the motivation behind this strategy is restoration, and we do believe that DEP staff are committed to full-restoration of lower Muddy Creek, and that this approach will get us much closer than the old way of doing things. However, considering the work FOC does each day, cleaning up impacts from the under-regulated days of mining in WV, we are suspect that these savings are also a much-needed crutch to the shrinking bond pool, and WV’s coal industry. We believe this goes against the intention of SMCRA, and that someone should be paying more attention to the differences between at-source treatment and operation and maintenance cost estimates and what is actually being spent. Because, in the end, the coal industry should be paying the full cost for the damages they have levied on our lands, waters, and people.
Likewise, we are suspect of the rules changes proposed in Senate Bill 163 (“The Bad” in our cover story). Our leaders are working to blur the lines and remove the definition of “completion of reclamation” from WV State Code. They assert its use in code is inconsistent, and therefore, confusing. The definition provides that reclamation is complete only when “all applicable effluent and applicable water quality standards are met.” (38CSR2-2,37). Unless the agency intends to allow operators to complete reclamation without meeting all applicable effluent standards and limitations, why not just clarify this definition instead of deleting it?
Instead of just getting rid of water quality limits and legal definitions, we should clarify them and reaffirm our commitments to restoring streams and meeting the expectations of both SMCRA and the Clean Water Act. What the rule changes in SB163 really feel like are an underhanded means to allow for more pollution, less treatment, and to prevent citizen lawsuits under the Clean Water Act.