Acid mine drainage from abandoned mine lands devastates bodies of water in coal communities across the U.S. — but there are also countless stories of individuals and organizations leading local efforts to fight back, filling the gaps created by government inaction or bureaucratic hurdles. One impactful organization that has had considerable success cleaning up acid mine drainage is Friends of the Cheat, a West Virginia-based group with the stated mission “to restore, preserve, and promote the outstanding natural qualities of the Cheat River watershed.”
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Friends of the Cheat works toward this goal through a number of different strategies, ranging from installing AMD treatment facilities to purchasing polluted watersheds in an effort to work toward future clean-up. They achieved some remarkable results, restoring fisheries and cleaning up tributaries previously plagued by pollution. Now, they are looking toward a future where the local economy and local pride can grow thanks to a healthy Cheat that draws visitors from near and far.
To share perspective on the work of the Friends of the Cheat, advocates for abandoned mine land restoration talked to Amanda Pitzer, the organization’s executive director. Pitzer discusses the specific impacts of acid mine drainage on the Cheat, analyzes abandoned mine lands funding pending before Congress and charts a path for future success in collaboration with state and federal decision-makers. Check out the video and the interview below.
Q: Amanda, thank you for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about the work you do at Friends of the Cheat?
Pitzer: Friends of the Cheat formed back in the mid-90s, in response to a catastrophic acid mine drainage blowout on the Cheat River. Since that time Friends of the Cheat has been working collaboratively with agencies, private landowners, and other partners to restore water quality to the Cheat and its tributaries. And, we’ve done so with a lot of success in recent years.
Q: What’s the impact of acid mine drainage on the Cheat?
Pitzer: The Cheat was mined for many years before modern mining laws, when it was very poorly regulated. Nine tributaries to the Cheat River are impacted by acid mine drainage (AMD). The Lower Cheat alone has over 342 abandoned mine lands that discharge AMD. The acid mine drainage has had a lasting impact on the tributaries, killing aquatic life and impairing drinking water for folks that live in those communities.
The Cheat is mainly impaired because of the mining of the Upper Freeport coal seam, which occurred before many folks knew about what produced AMD. We are one of the more forgotten mining areas because we don’t have active mining now in the watershed.
We’ve worked for many years to restore water quality to those polluted tributaries, and in turn, have restored water quality to the Cheat River mainstem. But there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Q: What are some of the ongoing or pending projects to clean up AMD on the Cheat?
Pitzer: As a grassroots organization, we have installed 19 treatment systems to clean up acid mine drainage at the source. The state of West Virginia has also done a lot of work, some of it supported by money thanks to AMD set aside funding allocated from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund.
The very first incident that caused Friends of the Cheat to form was a blowout on Muddy Creek which, for years, was the most heavily polluted tributary to the Cheat. But in 2018, we cut the ribbon to a $10 million AMD treatment plant on Muddy Creek, with funds from bond forfeiture, the AMD set aside, and private industry. And in the last two years, we’ve collected fish samples that show Muddy Creek is slowly recovering as a fishery. Now, we have fish not only throughout the mainstem, but some of our impacted tributaries.
We’ve come a long way, but we still have a lot more work to do. The next site in our crosshairs is the Lick Run Portal site, which is an abandoned mine land site of which Friends the Cheat are the proud owners. We bought it in a tax sale thinking someday we would need a footprint to develop a treatment system. Now, that day has come.
Q: Why is the Lick Run portal site so important?
Pitzer: The Lick Run portal site is only a mile and a half from Lick Run’s confluence with the Cheat River, which is a very popular area for recreation known as the Cheat River Narrows. There’s whitewater rafting, fishing, swimming — it’s one of the most visited areas of the Cheat. But, because of the pollution, we have a huge visual stain that you can see for miles. You can see the iron and the aluminum mix with the healthy waters of the Cheat, and it creates this psychedelic effect that is not natural and is not healthy. It is not something that we want tourists to post on Instagram.
For decades, hundreds of gallons a minute of water polluted with metals seeped out of these portals and created a moonscape of metals across this area. It is so bad that disturbing the bottom could actually make water quality worse.
Now, we need a full-scale treatment plant just like that treatment plant that we were able to implement on Muddy Creek several years ago.
This is an example of Friends of the Cheat finally moving towards offense. We’re bringing people back to the river and we’re getting ready to break ground on eight miles of the Cheat River Rail-Trail. As we look towards the future, we don’t want these sites tucked up in the hillside that are just spewing hundreds of gallons of polluted water every minute, 24/7, 365 days a year. Lick Run itself can contribute four tons of iron to the Cheat River and three tons of aluminum in a given year. That’s just one site, and there are hundreds across the Lower Cheat.
So we’ve come a long way, but our work is not done.
Q: What can be done to make sure that that Cheat is cleaned up and AMD is treated? What can Congress do?
Pitzer: Addressing the pollution from Lick Run is going to take a project of scale and scope that is beyond the funding that Friends of the Cheat has now. We really need a full-scale treatment plant, with costs likely in the $5 million range. And maybe that doesn’t sound that much, but what never goes away are the operations and maintenance costs. We have to keep adding limestone to raise the pH, pumping the sludge that’s produced, and treating the water, again, 24/7, 365, And that could cost about a quarter of a million dollars a year in perpetuity.
Without continued support of the Abandoned Mine Land fund and the ability for our states to put money in the AMD set aside account, we will not be able to achieve this goal.
I love that there’s big dollars being put towards abandoned mine lands in the infrastructure bill — but if we can’t spend the money on what’s important, or the work that’s left to be done, or the projects that are actually going to have impacts in our communities, I don’t see that as a victory.
Acid mine drainage never goes away. And we need continued support to keep treating it.
A lot of these sites that we still need to work on either aren’t on the inventory or they are water problems. Right now, with the way that bill is structured, we couldn’t use this big money to really clean up those sites, which are often what needs to be cleaned up. That’s really short-sighted. We know that if we can’t keep putting lime in those silos and we can’t keep pumping the sludge, we could actually see water quality impacts reverse. That is not fear mongering, that’s real. We’ve seen it happen in Pennsylvania and here in West Virginia when treatment systems fail just for a couple days. It leaves an impact.
A gap in treatment makes no sense. It is not acceptable. Acid mine drainage never goes away. And we need continued support to keep treating it.
Q: What does this work mean for the local economy and the community?
Pitzer: Doing this work is important for our new economy, which is going to include tourism. But the reason that we’ve done this work for almost 30 years is because we live in this community, and the people here deserve clean water.
Restoring these sites also has been a great benefit and business opportunity for local construction companies and contractors. Friends of the Cheat works with local contractors on our construction projects, which range anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000. These jobs involve earthmoving and plumbing — work that people here are already trained to do. There are a lot of folks that used to work in the mines or extractive industries and can run heavy equipment.
Doing this work is important for our new economy, which is going to include tourism. But the reason that we’ve done this work for almost 30 years is because we live in this community, and the people here deserve clean water.
When we are restoring abandoned mine lands, not only are we improving the environment, we’re improving the economy and giving people pride in the place that they live. That’s hard to quantify. But, there’s something special about the Cheat River. And there’s something special about Friends of the Cheat.
We’re improving the local economy, we employ local people, we have a full time staff of six, we pay a living wage, we give people a reason to be here. You can’t put a number on that pride. The folks that lived here 20 years ago would look at a stream and say, “Well, it’s the way it’s always been, it’s never going to change.” We’ve proven we’ve proven that wrong! And that gives people hope to change other things in their community. Impossible things.