Inside the River Boat Industry, How Mussels Clean Our Rivers & More Inside Appalachia


In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we’re looking at how water shapes us ⁠— and how we’re impacting our waterways. Our rivers are a vital part of our identity as Appalachians. We depend them for survival, recreation and transportation. And we depend on rivers for economic reasons, too. 


The handful of riverboat companies that still operate in Appalachia have primarily made the majority of their money towing coal barges. But a downturn in coal production meant many of these companies had to look to other ways to stay afloat.

In this episode:

This week, we meet some of the people who work in the river boat industry in West Virginia to hear how they see the future. While we expected to talk economics, the conversations took an unexpected turn.

Many times, people who work on the rivers see our trash long after we’ve forgotten about it. Eric Gardner, a commercial diver on the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, sees it all. Eric Douglas brings us his story about working on the river and especially how the trash he sees eventually flows to the ocean. 


“You will have an island full of trash, different debris, tires, refrigerators, anything plastic just floats,” Gardner said. “It’d be nice if we could come up with a plan and try to work with Army Corps of Engineers to where we may be able to stop this from happening.”



Credit Eric Douglas / WVPB
Marvin Ross is a pilot with Amherst Madison. Here he’s pushing five barges full of coal along the Kanawha River outside Charleston.

We followed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about what Gardner said about the trash in the river. Their spokesperson told us there is no safe and cost-effective way for the locks and dam workers to remove the trash from the river. They treat it all like natural debris and let it flow down the river. 


And we speak with 101-year-old Charlie Jones, the chairman of Amherst Madison, one of the river boat companies that has lasted through the downturn in coal production.

“If you look at all the companies that have tried to survive by doing the same thing, they haven’t been able to make it,” he said.


He blamed Obama Administration for the majority of the reduction in coal production, which he said hurt his industry. 



Credit Eric Douglas/ WVPB
One of the deckhands who works with Amherst Madison. Deckhands typically earn about $100 a day when they start with the company. Workers live, sleep and eat for several weeks on the boats when they work.

“President Obama started this crusade shutting down coal mines,” Jones said, pointing to environmental regulations that put restrictions on the emissions from coal-fired power plants.


Still, even though he doesn’t agree with the way these regulations were rolled out, Jones said he does believe we have to clean up our air. He doesn’t call himself an environmentalist, but a pragmatist. 


“Are we concerned about the quality of our air? Well let’s do something about it,” he said. “We’re not doing anything about it right now. I’d say there’s a big challenge ahead of us.”


He said he thinks the planet has a limit, and points out that in his lifetime, the population across the globe has exploded.

“I think you just got to be practical,” Jones added. “You can’t keep loading a planet up with people. Unless you do something with the toxicity they produce.” 


Coal Ash Spill Leaves Toxic Legacy in TN


Sometimes, industry fails to keep our rivers safe. That’s what happened in Kingston, Tennessee in 2008. More than a billion gallons of coal ash flooded several homes and contaminated the Emory River.

Coal ash is a by-product that builds up when power companies produce electricity from coal. 

Since the Kingston spill, there have been subsequent coal ash spills elsewhere throughout our region. Only recently have scientists begun to realize the scope of some of the long-term health effects of the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee. “Broken Ground” is a new podcast from the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Host and producer Claudine Ebeid McElwain and her producers spent six months looking back at the impacts that the coal ash spill had for the community of Kingston and the workers who helped clean up the spill. 


Credit Brittany Patterson / Ohio Valley ReSource
Ohio Valley ReSource
Biologist Janet Clayton has studied freshwater mussels for much of her 30-year career.


What’s in a Name?


Since this week we’re exploring stories about how people interact with our rivers, we wanted to dig a little deeper into a debate we’ve had here in our newsroom over the origins of the name of one of our rivers, and how to pronounce it. If you’ve ever been to Morgantown, West Virginia you’ve probably driven over or near the Monongahela River.

What’s the correct pronounciation of the Monongahela River?

  • Mo-noun-GEE-ha-la
  • Monongah-EE-la
  • Monongah-A-la
  • Mon-on-ga-hEE-la.

Listen to the show to find out and to hear more about the roots behind the name.

Veteran Says Fly Fishing Saved His Life 


We also hear the first story from our new folklife corps of reporters. Mason Adams profiled Kyle Chanitz, an Army vet who says fly fishing saved his life. 

Kyle Chanitz makes a gear change while fishing on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia.

Credit Mason Adams/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting
Kyle Chanitz makes a gear change while fishing on a Project Healing Waters trip to Wolf Creek in Bland County, Virginia.

Music in this episode was provided by  Matt Jackfert, Blue Dot Sessions, and Dinosaur Burps

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Kara Lofton edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.