Ef­forts to save the Cheat River chart clearer course for­ward

The Washington Times Daily - - AMERICAN SCENE - BY MICHAEL VIRTANEN

PRE­STON COUNTY, W.VA. | The Cheat River flows pale green and slate gray, glis­ten­ing in the sun­shine as it gath­ers speed, turns to whitewater and drops be­tween rocks on the way to­ward the Monon­ga­hela River. From there, it makes its way to the Ohio River and the drink­ing wa­ter of mil­lions of peo­ple.

As West Vir­ginia pushes to­ward an un­cer­tain eco­nomic fu­ture, a river that once flowed bright or­ange charts a course out of min­ing’s toxic lega­cies.

The state re­cently joined con­ser­va­tion­ists to pro­tect the Cheat’s eight-mile whitewater canyon, col­lec­tively buy­ing 3,800 acres from tim­ber in­vestors for $7 mil­lion. A new $8 mil­lion wa­ter treat­ment plant next year should help al­le­vi­ate on­go­ing acid drainage from an aban­doned un­der­ground coal mine that blew out in 1994, spew­ing acid and me­tals.

“In the East, it’s a rare op­por­tu­nity where you get to pro­tect eight river miles along an area that not only has tremen­dous bio­di­ver­sity but also has a lot of recre­ational op­por­tu­ni­ties avail­able,” said Keith Fisher, a bi­ol­o­gist for the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy.

Even with Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump promis­ing a coal in­dus­try come­back, most West Vir­gini­ans have adapted to a world in which other eco­nomic en­gines are needed to re­vive one of the na­tion’s poor­est states. The two-decade ef­fort to re­claim the Cheat River and its trib­u­taries fits into a broader push to grow tourism in West Vir­ginia, where vis­i­tors al­ready spend about $4.5 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

“Our tourism pos­si­bil­i­ties in this state are lim­it­less,” Gov.-elect Jim Jus­tice said dur­ing the cam­paign.

An out­doors­man and mine owner, Mr. Jus­tice told The As­so­ci­ated Press af­ter win­ning that he wants to pro­tect the state’s air, wa­ter and nat­u­ral beauty, say­ing it can co­ex­ist with coal.

The Cheat also has a more tan­gi­ble con­nec­tion to West Vir­ginia’s coal legacy. Like many wa­ter­ways in coal­pro­duc­ing states, it re­mains threat­ened by mine drainage that turns wa­ter acidic.

The state Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion calls the acid­i­fi­ca­tion of wa­ter­ways coal’s “big­gest en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lem,” af­fect­ing hun­dreds of miles of West Vir­ginia rivers and streams, usu­ally from aban­doned mines where those who caused it are long gone. The agency says the Monon­ga­hela, Tug Fork, North Branch of the Po­tomac and sev­eral other rivers have all been af­fected.

The Cheat is clear to the bot­tom and shal­low in Novem­ber, un­like the spring surge that rises above boul­ders and draws peak-sea­son rafters and kayak­ers down the canyon. Its steep walls are lined with hard­woods, oaks, hick­o­ries and maples still drop­ping am­ber leaves. The wa­ter re­mains high enough to carry small boats.

Part of the 330-mile Allegheny Trail runs par­al­lel for eight miles, high on the river’s east rim. The nar­row, grassy for­mer log­ging tract was once des­ig­nated for a rail line. Now it’s re­opened to hik­ers, fish­er­men and hunters and closed to all-ter­rain ve­hi­cles. Com­mer­cial rafters never stopped us­ing their rights to a nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­way, though they lost busi­ness af­ter the blowout.

“Cheat River is so much bet­ter than it used to be,” said Doug Wood, a re­tired state bi­ol­o­gist. “As a drink­ing wa­ter source, it’s much bet­ter than it was be­fore.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The state of West Vir­ginia re­cently joined Na­ture Con­ver­vancy’s Keith Fisher and Abi­gail Strass­man to pro­tect the Cheat River’s eight-mile whitewater canyon.

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