For this Swim Guide Spotlight, we reached out to Garrett Richardson the monitoring technician of Friends of the Cheat. To learn more about the effects of Acid Mining Drainage and how it affects the Cheat River in West Virginia.
Where: West Virginia, USA
Number of regions: 1
Number of sites: 12
Sampling season: Year-Round
Sampling frequency: Bi-Weekly
Swim Guide Affiliate since: 2017
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Or: Hello Garrett, thank you for meeting with me. Could you tell me about yourself and how you ended up in Friends of the Cheat?
Garrett: I am the Monitoring Technician for Friends of the Cheat. I primarily do the fieldwork; I am the one out in the field collecting water samples. I work with Madison Ball, our Program Manager, who oversees the bigger picture stuff and overall direction of the restoration program. I got hired a little over two years ago, but I am from the area. I grew up right by the lake in the Cheat watershed. I went to West Virginia University for wildlife and fisheries. During that time, I started training as a raft guide. I worked as a raft guide for eight years. So I spent years enjoying the river. I am also passionate about fishing. All that time spent on the river made me fall in love with it, and I heard about Friends of the Cheat. Once I was done with school, I saw an opening here, and I applied for a job. So now, I can devote my time to improving the watershed that I always loved. .
Or: That is fantastic! I love that so much. You first build your connection with the water recreationally, and now you care for it professionally.
Garrett: I got to see the impact of the work of Friends of the Cheat with my own eyes. I remember how the acid mine drainage issue was a lot worse. Many of our projects had not been built yet, so I got to see the before and after. It is incredible to see every year the positive change that is happening.
Or: That must be a fantastic feeling. I am happy you brought up the acid mine drainage Issue. Would you be able to give me a bit of background on this issue?
Garrett: The Cheat River in West Virginia has a lot of historical mining sites. During the early 1900s up to the Clean Water Act of 1972, we had a lot of unregulated mining. Essentially, up until the Clean Water Act, no one was responsible for cleaning up the pollutants, we call them seeps, from the mines. We saw on the river a blowout of acid mine drainage and no funds or bodies in charge of cleaning it up.
A blowout occurs when water finds its way into tunnels and shafts of an old mine. Because it finds its way into tunnels and shafts of an old mine that have not been sealed properly. When the water builds enough pressure in a strong weather event, it will bust through the side of the mountain into the watershed. Sometimes this event can be violent, imagine; a torrent of acid mine drainage.
Or: So this is a heritage issue since your area had a lot of mining in it. Was the acid used in the process of the mining? Is that how it got there?
Garrett: That is a commonly confused thing. The way it works is that our mines were operated for mining coal. Surprisingly, coal is not the actual pollutant that causes our environmental degradation. It is the specific geology that surrounds the coal seams themselves. The mining industries call the surrounding rocks that must be removed to reach the coal “overburden rock.” Our “overburden rock” layers in this part of West Virginia are very rich in sulphur-bearing rocks like pyrite. In the process of mining for coal, these pyrite minerals have been exposed and mined to reach those layers of coal seams. Exposing pyrite is the main cause of acid mine drainage in our area. When exposed to air and water, it allows the movement of highly acidic water rich in heavy metals (mainly iron and aluminum)..
Or: Thank you so much for clarifying all of that for me. What effects can you see in your river from this process?
Garrett: Acid mine drainage is highly toxic and has many effects on all life (plants and animals) in the watershed. It lowers the pH of the water and soil to levels that most bugs, fishes, and plants can not survive in. Interestingly, When acid mine drainage comes out of a mountainside, it is crystal clear. The sulfuric acid present causes the pH, in the worst places, to be around 2.5 to 3. Water that acidic can dissolve heavy metals like iron and aluminum and hold them in solution. So you might not be able to see the heavy metals that the drainage carries. This polluted water will remain clear until it comes in contact with higher pH water. Once the waters mix and the pH raises, the water can’t hold the metals anymore and precipitates them. That is when you see the bright orange iron deposits people around here often call “yellow boy.” It looks like a coat of rust on the rocks. You also see rocks coated with a white color when the water was high in aluminum.
The introduction of acidic water and heavy metal deposition in our streams has a double whammy negative effect on our environment. The iron/aluminum coats the river bottom smothering, the natural habitat for critters and bugs that make up the ecosystem and provide the food to support fish populations. At the same time, the sulfuric acid will reduce the pH of the water so much that nearly all organisms struggle to survive.
To combat this phenomenon, we create treatment systems that collect this acidic water. We try to intervene as close to the source as possible and raise the pH ourselves. We use calcium carbonate, most commonly known as limestone. We divert the acid drainage water through one of our systems. Our systems are set in a way that the water has time to react with the limestone, and we then can catch the iron and aluminum precipitating out of solution. That way, we address the two issues, the acidity of the water and the deposit of heavy metals, before they reach the nearest stream.
To make these interventions effective, you have to do it at the source. We can intervene at a tributary that feeds into the main river. Our systems are so effective that the water coming out of them is oftentimes alkaline (higher than a pH of 7), boosting the watershed’s resilience to acidification downstream.
Or: That is so interesting. It is very circular that you had a man-made problem created in your watershed, and now you have a man-made solution to the issue. How many systems do you have going in your watershed? And how many acid mine drainage seeps do you tackle?
Garrett: We’ve been able to make an immense amount of reductions of metal loads in the main stem of the river using these systems. The problem with attempting to tackle all of these non-sources point pollution (the seeps) is that they find the weak spots in the side of the mountain, and they continually pop up all over the watershed. It would be nearly impossible to address every single seep and have funds to construct treatment systems for all of them. They can come out of many places at once and change over time. We spend a lot of time mapping these seeps. Right now, we have 19 treatment sites. These treatment systems work passively. As long as they are stacked with fresh limestone, the systems run themselves.
Or: This is a huge task that you are working on. How can individuals get involved with this project?
Garrett: We are lucky to have a great community that cares about our river. We have passionate people who voice their concerns and advocate for our work. We are so successful because of those motivated people who are fighting for us. People reach out to our legislators and decision-makers on behalf of the river. People push for the river when new bills or issues come up. Another thing that people can do is be out there in the watershed and spot new seeps. We often find out about new seeps from landowners who call and tell us what is happening in their area.
We also have our citizen science program CAPABLE. We provide individuals with testing equipment, and we give them the ability to go out and collect preliminary data. This data is used to determine if a deeper intervention is needed.
Lastly, as a non-profit organization, we try to do a lot with not very much. Individuals can make a difference by donating to Friends of the Cheat to keep this program going. It is a big ask, but we are lucky to have a great group of people who believe in us.
Or: Those are great ways to get involved. I am sure people reading this can find the way that suits them best. My next question is something I like to ask all my interviewees. What is your river’s secret?
Garrett: I like that! That is a tough one! One secret would be its beauty. There is a remote 13-mile canyon on the river, with some of the best white water rafting on the east coast. The minute you get into that canyon, you are in complete wilderness. It is a chance to see the river without all the pollution and legacy that people have left behind. It is a whole new world in that canyon.
Or: That sounds amazing! Thank you so much, Garrett, for your time talking to me and telling me about your work. I’ve learned so much!
Photos by Friends of the Cheat
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