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For as long as he can recall, Williamson resident John Burchett said that when you looked over the U.S. Highway 119 Bridge leading to Kentucky, all you’d see on the Tug Fork River were tires.
“For tire businesses, individuals, the river was easiest way to get rid of things,” said Burchett, also a local part-time firefighter. “And unfortunately, that’s what people did, and we’re paying the price now.”
While a growing number of communities along the river are increasingly touting the waterway as a draw for outdoor recreation, there’s still a lot of work to be done to make sure it’s clean and safe.
Last week, Burchett was one of several local volunteers behind the Williamson PK-8 school, where there’s an access point to the river, half a mile down from the bridge.
With help from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and its Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan (REAP), the volunteers removed more than 1,600 tires from a couple 100 yards of river over three days.
According to REAP staff, the state has helped other river communities with tire clean-up projects, including those along the Coal and Elk rivers. The tires they remove go to the West Virginia Tire Disposal waste monofill in Summersville, a landfill exclusively for old tires.
The organization’s website states it will hold on to the tires they can be recycled.
“You know, if we’re going to be serious about tourism, growing that industry and helping our environment, this is what you have to do,” said Williamson Mayor Charles Hatfield. He was one of about eight volunteers present Monday morning, in addition to DEP employees and contracted workers, paid for by the DEP.
Other participants included Glen Allen Daugherty of Woodman, Kentucky, another Tug Fork River town about 30 miles downstream from Williamson.
Last summer, Daugherty — who says his friends call him Grizzly Allen — and his son kayaked nearly the entire length of the Tug Fork River, from Welch, McDowell County to Louisa in Kentucky.
“We had to pull the kayak, and we had about 150 pounds of gear, a little tent one-man tent and a one-man sleeping shelter,” Daugherty recalled. “And we went to survive, on our own, catching fish, eating ramen, camp.”
All the while, Daugherty was posting pictures of their journey to the Friends of the Tug Fork River Facebook group, which attracted attention to their trip. He said people began joining them, bought them food and let them sleep in local schools.
“It’s such a beautiful river, and there’s so much good fishing and stuff on it, and we don’t have to drive very far to enjoy it,” Daugherty said.
Daugherty said he’s showed up to help pick up tires in Williamson, to show support for the river and its future as a recreational waterway.
“I just wish we would have more people that would get involved in these events,” Daugherty said. “And I would like to see it spread from town to town and in between, because what’s here in six months will be down there.”
Creating A ‘Wide Open’ And ‘Unimpeded’ River
Mayor Hatfield said the town is also looking forward to building a spillway around a low head dam upstream from town that is used for the city’s water intake.
That will allow the more than 150-mile river to flow unimpeded, an important factor for growing river-based recreation. The spillway could also alleviate dangerous conditions that can occur near the dam.
According to Hatfield, the dam’s only about five feet tall, but as water flows over it, it can reach about 10 feet on the other side, creating conditions that can be fatal.
“If you go over the dam and get caught … it will not let you escape,” said Burchett, the part-time firefighter. “It rolls you, until you’re just out of breath.”
With a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority, Williamson has created a construction plan for the spillway.
The city is also applying for construction funds from the DEP’s program for Economic Development of Abandoned Mine Lands.
“If we can get the construction money from that grant, to do this, then this river, all 159 miles of it, will be wide open, unimpeded for recreational navigation,” Burchett said.
Volunteers are scheduled to go out for a final day for tire removals on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Burchett said volunteers will gather behind the Williamson PK-8 school around 9 a.m.
Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.