Fewer acid-polluted streams does not surprise WVU experts

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February 2, 2005 –

Morgantown, W.Va. -The recent news that there are fewer waterways on the state’s latest list of streams and rivers polluted by acid mine drainage came as no surprise to Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI) at the West Virginia University National Research Center for Coal and Energy.

WVU Grad Assistant Amie Greimer collects water samples from Big Sandy Creek in Preston County, WV.

WVU Grad Assistant Amie Greimer collects water samples from Big Sandy Creek in Preston County, WV.

The number of acid mine drainage-polluted waterways on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s “303(d)” list dropped from 488 in 1998 to 80 in 2005. Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act requires that streams or segments of streams that are impaired be identified.

“As DEP identifies a stream segment’s total maximum daily load (TMDL), or the amount of pollutant that a stream can accept, the agency begins the process of improving it by controlling new sources of pollution while focusing cleanup efforts,” explained Ziemkiewicz.

“Once there is a plan for improvement, then the stream is removed from the 303(d) list. It does not necessarily mean that the stream is healthy, but it does mean that we have a measure of the problem and planners can develop strategies for dealing with it. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” he said.

For the past decade, the WVWRI has been working with the state DEP and others to identify, measure, and remediate acid-laden streams.

Ziemkiewicz points to the WVWRI’s work in the Cheat River watershed in Preston County, W.Va. “Instead of working on single points of contamination at individual mine sites around the state, we chose to work with the River of Promise group and at their direction, focus all our efforts on one watershed at a time,” said Ziemkiewicz. River of Promise is a pact between Friends of the Cheat Watershed Association, the WVWRI, and state and federal agencies to clean up the Cheat River watershed.

The group has projects at Big Bear Lake and on Sovern Run, the North Fork of Greens Run, the Middle Fork of Greens Run, the McCarty highwall, the Pase Property, Connors Run, and the Sherman Helms mine portal. The researchers are studying a variety of inexpensive technologies ranging from open limestone stream channels to nearly airtight underground limestone drains to steel slag-lined ponds. Recent measurements show that all but one are working well.

The amount of acidity in Sovern Run is down by more than 17 percent. The North Fork of Greens Run is 70 percent less acidic. The McCarty Highwall actually produces alkaline water now. The Pase Property has seen an 84 percent drop in acid load and the Sherman Helms portal has seen an equally impressive 83 percent drop in acidity. The Connors Run project raised the pH from 2.7 to 5.5. By comparison, the pH of drinking water is 6.0 to 8.0.

The WVWRI’s strategy is to remove over half of the acidity at each treatment site so that the net effect is neutral water in the target stream. “The first ton of acidity removed is always the cheapest,” said Ziemkiewicz. “Trying to achieve drinking water levels at each mine discharge would mean we spend all of our money on one or two sites and put really good water into really bad streams. Rather, we’re trying to improve the stream by gradually reducing the total amount of pollutant in headwater locations,” said Ziemkiewicz.

The approach has worked very well. For example, a fishery has been reestablished in one Cheat River tributary, the Big Sandy Creek, which had been dead for decades.

The cost has been fairly modest, too. The projects in the Big Sandy watershed cost less than $400,000. Yet a 1980 study by the US EPA put a price of $4.0 million on cleaning up one single tributary, Sovern Run, alone. The WVWRI technologies have been the difference.

Only one site, the Middle Fork of Greens Run, has not worked. “That’s partly because we took our initial stream measurements during a drought,” explained project manager Brady Gutta. “So the project ended up being under-designed. But we’re redesigning it now,” he said.

For the past fours years, Ziemkiewicz and Gutta have been assisted by safety and environmental management graduate student Amie Greiner, who joined the institute as a sophomore. The Parkersburg, W.Va., native plans to graduate in December, 2005 and then work in environmental compliance and regulation for the government.

Building on the success with the Cheat watershed, the researchers are turning their attention to Lower Paint Creek in Kanawha County, W. Va. “We’ve just started looking at this region and hope to have some projects underway this summer,” said Ziemkiewicz.

Ziemkiewicz said the real key to success has been the River of Promise partnership. Funding comes from the watershed association’s cooperative agreements with the federal Office of Surface Mining and from the WVWRI’s contracts with the West Virginia Department of Environmental who receives funding from the U.S. EPA.

“Dr. Ziemkiewicz and the Water Research Institute provide the technical expertise that we rely on to design projects that will give us good results,” said Keith Pitzer, executive director of Friends of the Cheat.

“We hope to duplicate our success with the Lower Paint Creek Watershed Association and other groups around the State,” said Ziemkiewicz.