Duncan Slade Published

Cleanup On The Cheat Underway Following Acid Mine Drainage Leak

Muddy Creek

Environmental advocates are beginning to measure the impact after the failure of an acid mine treatment facility last week in Preston County that sent high acidic water and sediment flowing downstream for miles.

The state-managed, $8.5 million treatment plant on Muddy Creek was one of the last major steps put in place to restore the Cheat River watershed. Last Thursday, a pipeline ruptured at the plant following heavy rainfall in the region.

Crews have since repaired the pipeline and the acidity of the stream water has stabilized, according to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP).

Amanda Pitzer, director of the environmental group Friends of the Cheat, said the full impact isn’t known right now but it’s definitely a setback.

“My guess is, Muddy Creek is going to be fairly devastated by this release because it was so fragile to start with,” Pitzer said.

For the first time in decades, essential microorganisms in the water had begun to regenerate, and last year, 10 species of fish were found in the stream. Pitzer said the organization will conduct tests to determine the impact on these fragile emerging populations

The confluence of orange acid mine drainage from Muddy Creek and blue, clear water from the Cheat can be seen on aerial footage captured by the Friends of the Cheat during the release.

The Cheat River was stained for several miles into the canyon towards Cheat Lake.

“It’s too early to say what the long-term impacts will be,” Pitzer said. “The good news is we have not seen any dead fish.”

While the impact of the blowout appears not as severe as similar blowouts in 1994 and 1995, she said it highlights the need for better communication between state agencies and local organizations and a contingency plan for future high-water events.

The WVDEP is investigating to determine the cause of the ruptured pipeline with the help of private industry and experts from West Virginia University.

Terry Fletcher, DEP’s acting communications director, said the investigation into the incident is ongoing and the next steps will be decided at its conclusion.

The plant is equipped to handle up to 7,600 gallons per minute during a blowout and last week’s high water event peaked below the maximum capacity at 6,200 gallons per minute.

Pitzer said the episode highlights the need for the reauthorization of the Abandoned Mine Land fee, a key source of funding for her organization and others like it. Without congressional action, it is set to expire this September.

While the river and land will heal over time from last week’s rush of acidic water, Pitzer said the land deserves a higher level of stewardship.

“Every time we get a rainstorm, we cannot have this happen or we will never see restoration,” she said. “Fish need clean water 100 percent of the time.”