While most mines in the eastern region of the Appalachian Mountains are no longer in operation, they are far from inactive.
In lightly populated places such as Albright, West Virginia, water with heavy metals seeps from mines into tributaries — the small streams that flow into rivers — finally pooling in reservoirs near the Chesapeake Bay. It’s also here where a group of kayakers made it their mission over 20 years ago to clean up one of the most polluted rivers in America: the Cheat River, a 78.3-mile tributary that runs through eastern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. And they’re still at it today.
Jim Snyder, a 64-year-old thrill-seeker who lives on the banks of the Cheat River near Albright, was one of those initial kayakers.
“The pollution there would burn your eyes,” Snyder says, recalling the condition of the river in the mid- to late-’90s, when a series of underground coal mine blowouts released orange-tinged water thick with heavy metals into the river.
The first blowout, in 1994, lowered the pH of the water to dangerous levels, killing off fish as far away as 16 miles downstream. Another blowout a year later eventually devastated the area’s tourism industry, known for its whitewater recreation. The Cheat River soon after became ranked as one the nation’s most endangered.
To reckon with the pollution and damage to the river’s ecosystem, Snyder and other kayakers in the community formed Friends of the Cheat to clean up the dirty streams and creeks that fed into the Cheat River. Their efforts helped the river recover and, with it, a tourism industry centered around its rapids.
“I’d never done much work on committees at that time so it was an awkward fit for me, but we kept making it work,” Snyder tells NationSwell. “We were rookies, but we endured.”
After the mine blowouts, the whitewater industry suffered from more than a 50 percent drop in business, while whitewater participation increased nationally by 33 percent during the same time period.
“Twenty-thousand people were going down the canyon annually in the ’80s and ’90s,” says Owen Mulkeen, associate director of Friends of the Cheat. “Albright [became] a ghost town compared to what it was like at the height of rafting.”
Friends of the Cheat led an effort with the Environmental Protection Agency to use various methods of water treatment, such as limestone filtration, to clean up the tributaries in the area. The success Snyder and the others had with bringing back the Cheat River became widely considered one of the most successful conservation stories.
“[Kayakers] have a passion and that usually keeps them in West Virginia,” says Mulkeen. “We are blessed with the natural beauty and recreation here.”
And that has helped keep the organization’s ranks filled — a necessity, given that mine pollution is still a very real problem in the waters around the Cheat.
Over 7,500 miles of streams in Appalachia are still polluted by heavy metals from abandoned mines, according to data collected by Friends of the Cheat. Before the passage of the Surface Mining and Reclamation Control Act in 1977, mining companies could seal their operations in whatever way they liked, with little or no oversight. And over the decades many of those seals have busted open.
“Mining had a huge impact on the industrial revolution, and allowed us to win or at least participate in two wars,” says Gavin Pellitteri, a recreational kayaker and outreach specialist for the nonprofit Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. “There’s a lot of that culture and pride left in the area.”
Pellitteri’s coalition works to correct for acid mine drainage, known as AMD. Similar to Friends of the Cheat, EPCAMR’s treatment strategy is to find an empty piece of land that can be filled with mine water into a pondlike basin. Limestone is used to neutralize the water’s acidity, and exposure to oxygen removes iron and drives off sulfates. Once done, the clean water is put back into a river.
“If you look at where these impacts are, it’s the spine of Appalachia — Northern Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, up to Pennsylvania,” says Pellitteri, who estimates that there are over 400 billion gallons of mine water in the Scranton, Pennsylvania, area alone.
As water conservationists like Snyder and Pellitteri continue to clean up the area’s waterways, where a virtually endless flow of polluted water streams from abandoned mines, there’s a fear that they’ll fail to attract a younger generation of outdoor activists to the mission.
“Unfortunately, there’s a brain-drain out of West Virginia,” Mulkeen says. “But we’re born and bred by paddlers, and we hope to continue that relationship. That’s our base.”
Because unlike a tree falling in the forest, a blown-out mine will matter, even if no one is around to witness it.