Reducing Pollution In New River Gorge Through Community Volunteer Efforts


Rafters and kayakers who travel the New River Gorge go through water that feeds in from several sources. One such waterway is Piney Creek. According to the state Department of Environmental Protection, as far back as the 1970s Piney Creek has contained sewage and high levels of fecal coliform, aluminum and iron. In 2002, the DEP listed Piney Creek as one of the worst-polluted streams in the state. A group of citizens formed a non-profit, called the Piney Creek Watershed, to help clean up the pollution.

Stormie Surface and Dayton Copeland are recent high school graduates in Fayette County and live near Piney Creek. For their first radio piece, Stormie and Dayton interviewed Corey Lilly, executive director for the Piney Creek Watershed Association, to get an idea of the progress his group has made to make it safer for residents in Fayette and Raleigh Counties to drink their water. This is an excerpt of that conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Stormie Surface: Do you know what the current status of the Piney Creek watershed is? 


Credit Courtesy Casey Cunningham
David Smith kayaking in Piney Creek. Smith is seen here dropping one of the bigger rapids on the creek as he makes his way down to the New River.

Corey Lilly: The current status is it is an impaired stream, so this creek is heavily impacted by the development of the city of Beckley. There are more than 20 sewer plants along the creek, and historically those have been providing a lot of sewage drain into the stream. With the recent upgrades it’s improved quite a bit. 

Copeland: Where does Piney Creek flow and what other rivers are affected by it?

Lilly: Piney Creek flows into the New River Gorge, and it is a National River protected by the federal government. And there’s a large tourism industry that surrounds the New River. Every year tens of thousands of people come to the area to recreate in the New River Gorge. So there’s a big push to try to increase the quality of the water in the New River Gorge because we don’t want people getting sick. We want people to be able to go out and recreate and have a good time.

One of our most successful jobs has been at the YMCA soccer complex in Beckley. There was a barren piece of land from an old mine site that our organization found funding for, and we were able to clean it up and plant a lot of vegetation and bring in some gardens that helped bring back some insects that were needed. And so we reduced the soil load that went into the stream, as well as planted vegetation and brought back some of the wildlife there. 


Credit Courtesy Joel Sullivan
A litter clean up organized by the Piney Creek Watershed Association.

Copeland: And while improving the drinking water for thousands of people is the main purpose of the watershed, Lilly said he also sees a lot of value in getting people out in their community, working on projects together. 

Lilly: We want to help those people in our community the best way that we can. I’ve personally received increases of quality of my life through outdoor recreation and being outside and being with friends and family in a healthy environment. The more people that we can get outside, the better our world is going to be.

Surface: Even though the coronavirus pandemic has put these community events on hold for now, Lilly said he hopes to be able to plan some type of a volunteer event sometime this summer or fall. 

Stormie Surface and Dayton Copeland are recent graduates from the Fayette Institute of Technology. Their interview with Corey Lilly was part of a mentorship project with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, as part of their multi-media class.