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Fish Return To A Mining County River


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. This summer, we've been telling stories about comebacks - people, places and things that have recovered or returned to glory. Well, today, we take you to the Allegheny Mountains in West Virginia. The Cheat River winds through former mining country. Coal provided an economic boost to the area but often at a cost to the environment, and the Cheat was one such casualty. Reporter Emily Corio took a trip down the river and brings us its story.

EMILY CORIO, BYLINE: Summer is in full swing on the Cheat River. Rafters gather near its bank. They maneuver carefully down a rocky path to the river's edge. At this time of year, the water is clear and low. Steep hillsides, lush and green, lead down to huge boulders - some larger than a car - piled along the riverside. In the spring, when the river is higher and wider, these rocks create rapids and a thrilling ride.

The Cheat's also a pretty good place to catch fish: small mouth and rock bass and sunfish. But it hasn't always been this way for the river and its tributaries, including Muddy Creek.

JIM SNYDER: Muddy Creek was running as orange as tomato soup.

CORIO: Whitewater kayaker Jim Snyder has tackled the Cheat's rapids since the '70s. He saw what decades of coalmining did to the area and the toxins that leached into its river system. Snyder says the water would sting your eyes. It smelled bad. It would even stain clothes orange. Twenty years ago, the lower Cheat River was considered dead.

FRANK JERNEJCIC: This was one of the last streams in the state that had essentially no fish in them.

CORIO: That's Frank Jernejcic. He's a fisheries biologist with West Virginia's Division of Natural Resources.

JERNEJCIC: A reach of a major river that had no fish in it is really unusual.

CORIO: And what was the killer? Acid mine drainage or AMD. It's created when pyrite, a mineral in rocks that's exposed after an area is mined, mixes with water and air. In 1994, coal company T&T Fuels illegally discharged millions of gallons of AMD into Muddy Creek. That's when it turned the color of tomato soup, and the pollution made its way into the Cheat River and miles downstream. The next year, it happened again.

Despite some state intervention, local residents got frustrated. They formed a group called Friends of the Cheat. Its goal: make the river healthy and restore it to the community. Amanda Pitzer is the group's executive director.

AMANDA PITZER: At that time, it was a ragtag group of locals, boaters, people that saw the acid mine drainage problem and knew it was going to take a plethora of partners and lots of resources to get it done.

CORIO: Friends of the Cheat partnered with other organizations to start testing water quality and figured out how to implement water treatment systems.

RALPH TETER: I was a little skeptical at first, like everybody else, about getting it cleaned up.

CORIO: That's retired coalminer Ralph Teter who now runs a campground near the Cheat River.

TETER: Nobody paid any attention to iron in the water because it's like a natural thing.

CORIO: They were used to it.

TETER: They were used to it until Friends of Cheat started.

CORIO: Teter joined the group and says locals started to notice a difference. Fisheries biologist Frank Jernejcic started to document improvements, too, through his fishing trips on the Cheat.

JERNEJCIC: I did that once in 1997, and I caught one fish, so I never went back. Then in 2005, I saw that the water quality had improved based on our water quality monitoring, so I went back in and fished it four times in 2005, and I caught 132 fish of seven different species. And that's probably the best indication of water quality improvement.

CORIO: As of today, Friends of the Cheat and state environmental agencies have spent close to $29 million on several dozen AMD treatment systems in the watershed.

PITZER: Now, we see fish. We see bugs. We see top predators.

CORIO: Amanda Pitzer says her staff at Friends of the Cheat wades into streams every week to check water quality.

PITZER: You know, we can talk about chemistry and numbers and dork out on math, but once the public acknowledges that there's fish, it's healthy, I mean, that's the true comeback.

CORIO: A comeback for the Cheat and, she says, for the people who feel good about their river again. For NPR News, I'm Emily Corio in Albright, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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