Tygart River Woes

By Cindy Rank

How well I recall quietly celebrating with a heart full of joy my 30th birthday on the side porch of the cabin we were building on our newly acquired little piece of almost heaven in southern Upshur County.

But, oh how my head hurts and my heart breaks after some 47 years to see coming true the various dire predictions from those earlier days, predictions about increasingly devastating impacts to water quality from mining in northern West Virginia. 

The Tygart Valley River is once again in the spotlight.

A Bit of Background

Beginning in the southern-most tip of Randolph County the Tygart flows north and west picking up the Middle Fork and Buckhannon Rivers in Upshur County, then flows north through Barbour and Taylor Counties before meeting the West Fork near Fairmont to form the Monongahela which then continues north picking up the Cheat just over the state line where it all flows on to Pittsburgh Pa to join the Allegheny and form the Ohio which then flows south along the western border of West Virginia.

Mining in this northern part of the state has been notorious for the orange-red acid, iron, aluminum and manganese laden streams from coal mining old and new, surface and deep.  Discharges from some of these mines in the Tygart River watershed are a constant threat to the health of the river, and have been a concern to West Virginia Highlands Conservancy for many years.

On a broader policy level, WVHC has participated in a decades long struggle to achieve strong federal and state policies to prevent Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), and to ensure full implementation and faithful enforcement. We’ve led and supported legal actions to prevent ineffective permitting and lax enforcement by state and federal regulatory agencies (e.g. the Friends of the Little Kanawha lawsuit that led to a federal Environmental Impact Study on the Little Kanawha River, the Mountain Stream Monitors led Lands Unsuitable for Mining petition attempt to protect the Buckhannon and Middle Fork Rivers, with Trout Unlimited and National Wildlife Federation filing appeals with the state and 10 day notices with the federal Office of Surface Mining re: Kittle and Whitman Flats above Cassidy Fork on the Middle Fork, Tenmile on the Buckhannon, litigation about bonding to cover water quality — The list is long and winding as readers of The Highlands Voice can attest.  

Much of the attention has been focused on strip mines in the northern part of the state, but deep mines are equally threatening though perhaps less visible – as Richard DiPretoro so aptly described in the October 1996 issue of the Highlands Voice. 

In that article Richard/Chico points to acid laden mine pools that threatened the Mon River then – and still do today. 

As the coal industry in northern West Virginia winds down, a massive and insidious problem literally wells up beneath the land. While any abandoned underground mine in Appalachia will eventually discharge, three areas connected to northern West Virginia merit extra attention.

He went on to name individual mines across the northern portion of the state that are of particular concern, including, Bailey, Enlow Fork, Federal #2, Loveridge, Robinson Run, Kingwood, Osage, Mepco.  –  All names that should send a chill down the spine of anyone familiar with the history of those mines and the current state of treatment or control.

            In the Potomac he mentions Mettiki, and includes this description that could apply to any of the other mines mentioned:

While some strides have been made in managing the Nation’s River such that fish have returned in places, acid drainage from large areas of underground mining hangs, almost literally, like the Sword of Damocles over the river’s future.

All through the long history of legal and regulatory challenges the most positive results represented, at best, short term solutions that serve as place holders for what is inevitable. In other words, merely kicking the can down the road.

Well, several of those roads are coming to a dead end and the cans are piling up. 

Notable in the Tygart Valley River watershed are the three highlighted in an article from the Save the Tygart folks elsewhere in this issue of the Highlands Voice.

Save the Tygart

Save the Tygart Watershed Association (STTWA) is a local watchdog group that has monitored for decades tributaries to the Tygart. The report elsewhere in this issue focuses on three of the more recent examples of those long feared and anticipated results just simmering along until they become uncontrollable.

STTWA’s years of meticulous monitoring along Three Forks Creek and other tribs to the Tygart provided historic water quality data that expanded and dove-tailed with our efforts the past few years with TEAM and Downstream Strategies as the Arch Coal LEER longwall mine geared up and began mining. 

The Save the Tygart article highlights three specific deep mine operations. 

The Lexington Coal Whitetail Mine is in Preston County at Newberg in the Racoon Creek watershed of Three Forks near the Sandy Creek area and not far from the notorious F & M forfeiture site that now costing the state’s Special Reclamation fund about a million dollars per year in treatment. Wells of several local residents have been polluted as the water from the mine infiltrates groundwater underlying their homes.

The Martinka mine further downstream in Marion County is filling to the brim and threatens to be the next to release its toxic water into the environment.  This possibility was included in WVDEP’s plea to the Circuit Court of Kanawha County as an example that the situation with the ERP bonding was an emergency that required immediate action by the court. [see bonding articles in May 2020 Voice].

And, last but not least, the ever-expanding LEER longwall mine along the east side of Tygart Lake State Park is proving true predictions of damage to surface and groundwater resources that WVHC and TEAM efforts cautioned about.  As conductivity levels rise in the stream below the refuse impoundment and wells and streams throughout the overlying communities are impacted by subsidence, the overall cost benefit ratio of that mine in human terms is [to me] below the acceptable level even as profits rise for Arch Coal from the sale of the metallurgical coal produced. 

More Chickens

Bottom line, as I wrote in the May issue of the Voice, the chickens are coming home to roost … and bringing with them the long-term high cost of inadequate permitting and lax enforcement of state and federal mining and water law. 

Whether it be the cost of land reclamation at giant mountaintop removal mines or water treatment costs due to toxic discharges of selenium, total dissolved solids, or the basic acid mine drainage mix of iron/aluminum/manganese, or the deep mine pools quietly filling with toxic water before oozing out into people’s yards, stream beds and groundwater wells, someone has to pay the price. 

The cost to companies and the regulatory agencies may be great, but the cost to human and natural resources is immeasurable – or priceless as the commercials used to say. 

[NOTE: There is an excellent 4-part series (and an editorial to boot!) in the Dominion Post on May 11, 12, 13 and 14th about the problems at Racoon Creek and the Lexington Mine.]