Water Over the Dams These Last 50 Years

By Cindy Rank

Just as bumper stickers claiming ‘Water is Life’ can be seen everywhere, one might say water has pretty much been the lifeblood of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy because just about everything the organization has done these past 50 years is somehow and in some way connected to water.

Love and respect for the clean streams of wild, wonderful West Virginia have inspired many fun times and launched many difficult struggles to protect those waters over the decades. General enjoyment, fun times and fighting the good fight for West Virginia’s water seems to have been ingrained in the very foundation of the organization.

The Rodman family and others would come Friday night of weekend board meetings prepared with photos and stories of their latest adventures. Vehicles would arrive at those meetings with beat up and much-loved kayaks and canoes and battered oars tied to the rooftops. Saturday outings on nearby streams would yield even more humorous stories to share before getting down to the more serious business meetings the following morning.

The Conservancy’s history is replete with stories about protecting Shavers Fork from mining, vociferously supporting Wild and Scenic Rivers Bill in the 1960’s, caring for the unique and native brook trout streams in the Mon Forest, the long campaigns to save the Blackwater from the timber barons and acid mine drainage, and to preserve the unique wetlands of Canaan Valley from being flooded as part of Mon Power’s planned pump storage plant and thus paved the way through often heated discussion for the Canaan Valley to become the nation’s 500th National Wildlife Refuge.

Support for free-flowing rivers came naturally for the founders of the Conservancy and it comes as no surprise to note the Conservancy’s long history of fighting dams – on the West Fork, the Gauley, the Cheat, the South Branch of the Potomac, and more.  Not all were successful. After decades of struggles, Stonewall Jackson is now home to a manicured golf course, fancy lodge and conference center. However, others like Rowlesburg and those near Marlinton continue to be discussed now and then, not being built but never far from someone’s mind.

Prompted by lawsuits by the Highlands Conservancy and others federal studies prior to the construction of Corridor H focused on many factors including river crossings and stream protection.  Still today debates about the last remaining section to be approved involve a major effort to avoid Blackwater Canyon.

Highlands Conservancy’s mining litigation often focused/focuses on protecting and cleanup of streams and rivers all across the state – from acid mine drainage in the Cheat, at Cassidy of the Middle Fork, Tenmile of the Buckhannon, and the headwaters of the Little Kanawha; to conductivity and selenium in the Elk, the Gauley, Pigeonroost of the Little Coal, Connelly Branch of the Mud.  Regulatory changes and attempts to avoid the law are red meat for the coal industry and the Conservancy has been there fighting the bad and supporting the good. The list is endless….

In the 1980s the Highlands Conservancy participated in the early days of the then WV Department of Natural Resources’ Water Quality Advisory Committee as citizen representative and alternate for Citizen Action Group – dealing with issues as diverse as pit waste disposal from conventional gas drilling operations, to salt storage piles at Department of Highway garages, and basic water quality questions.

Those days also found Highlands Conservancy members involved in citizen stream monitoring with Mountain Stream Monitors (MSM), a project initiated to help fill the gap in WVDNR’s Water Monitoring data especially for small out of the way headwater streams.  Citizen training and official certification by DNR was extended to groups who inevitably began documenting acid pollution in many of the streams they tested. Once MSM began using the data they collected to support legal action against coal mine operators and the state regulatory agency that version of the state certification program came to a halt. MSM training and monitoring continued and expanded to include monitoring sedimentation pollution from timbering and gas well access roads, and documented some of those late night during heavy rains “accidental” breeches of waste water pits at drilling sites.

A Lands Unsuitable for Mining Petition in the acid prone Buckhannon and Middle Fork Rivers met with the rather lukewarm response from WVDNR: “Well, yes, we know there are big acid problems there and we’re working with industry to find solutions, but most of the area is already controlled by mining companies and valid permits…. and besides you all didn’t define the area well enough, nor did you substantiate your claims.” …. Truth be told, the petition included reams of agency files and company monitoring reports to substantiate those claims.  And naively perhaps writers of the petition went out of their way to allow the agency, that admittedly knew the extensiveness of the problem, was better suited to define the specific area where further mining would be off limits.

WV Highlands Conservancy was, however, the motivating force behind the state of West Virginia taking over ownership and the accompanying responsibility for water treatment at the 700+ acre acid oozing DLM mine site on the Buckhannon River. Despite the state’s vow to never repeat that move, later lawsuits have held the state responsible for increasing bond amounts and indeed being responsible for forfeited mine sites much like DLM.

In the 1990s WV Highlands Conservancy joined with other state groups concerned about water quality and policy in a coalition called West Virginians 4 Water.  WV4H2O worked with the WV Department of Environmental Protection’s Environmental Advocate to arrange trips to Philadelphia/EPA offices and to host regular meetings in Morgantown and Charleston with representative from Region III EPA, and later state agencies as well, to discuss the myriad of water issues.

WV Highlands Conservancy was a major plaintiff in a landmark legal suit claiming the state of West Virginia had failed in its mandatory duty to draw up plans for cleaning up impaired waters in the state, plans formally known as TMDLs or Total Maximum Daily Loads, used to set limits on pollutants allowed to be discharged into various state waters that were already impaired by some kind of pollution.  The litigation charged the Environmental Protection Agency to assume that duty if West Virginia continued to stonewall.  After much negotiating, the state began the long and drawn out process of doing TMDLs that continues today.

In the ‘90s the Highlands Conservancy also participated in several years of committee meetings, discussions, lobbying efforts, and finally passage of the West Virginia Groundwater Protection Act. An instigator of that effort was the WV Groundwater Coalition started with funding from Citizen Action Group and leading to the formation of the West Virginia Environmental Coalition of which WV Highlands Conservancy was a founding member.

Similar to the earlier WV4H2O, some of the same organizations, including the Conservancy, are partnered in a Water Policy Workgroup facilitated by WV Rivers to oversee, follow, birddog water quality regulations proposed by the WV DEP for consideration by the legislature. The workgroup meets regularly by conference call, submits comments on pending rules and policy issues. Representatives of the group often make oral comments at public hearing and follow the proposed Water Quality regulations and through in Legislative process.

Despite a decline in the use of coal in this country, coal mining continues and so does litigation by the Conservancy and others to rein in the abuses of that mining especially as it impacts streams and water resources.

Unconventional Shale Gas drilling has brought unconventional pressure on water resources. The need for huge amounts in drilling and fracking, the problems with disposal of that water once it comes back out of the ground supersaturated with salt and other nasties from the depths are major concerns. The Highlands Conservancy attends hearings and submits comments on some of those developments. With the Allegheny Blue Ridge Alliance, Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, the WV Rivers Coalition, and Appalachian Mountain Advocates the Conservancy continues to object to federal and state permitting of the giant gas pipelines that threaten to contaminate native brook trout and other pristine streams in the National Forests and karst area groundwater resources with sediment and spills of drilling mud and other contaminants.

On a lighter note the Highlands Conservancy continues to support and promote the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument designation for the headwaters of six famed rivers in the southern part of the Mon Forest, and continues to be active with Wilderness and Public Lands preservation efforts.