Efforts to save the Cheat River chart clearer course forward
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.”
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.