We should all be talking about it: a bird’s-eye view of the impacts on what we drink and where we play in the Mountain State.

— (This is the first of a two-part series on water in West Virginia. This dispatch focuses on the challenges to water from a statewide and geopolitical point of view. The second installment will focus on water in the Eastern Panhandle.)

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It’s impossible to talk about water in West Virginia without focusing on energy production, food and farming, and suburban-style development—even in rural small towns. From the earliest days of timbering that denuded the Appalachian forests for charcoal and lumber to modern technologies of extracting coal and natural gas, West Virginia has been, as some put it, an energy sacrifice zone. We are District Nine of The Hunger Games, an energy production region. And, in some counties—the Eastern Panhandle among them—we have a heritage of farming that is hanging by a thread. We are also one of the few areas of West Virginia experiencing growth, which makes possible our arts, restaurants, and high standard of living.

All of these come at a cost to water. Here are some of the challenges.

Acid Mine Drainage

Acid mine drainage is one of the lasting legacies of sub-surface coal mining. It’s the result of oxidation underground when water is mixed with minerals and bacteria. The process can occur naturally, but is primarily associated with mining. During mining operations, water is continually pumped to the surface. Active mines are monitored and the water treated—although the regulations guiding this treatment still cause pollution. After mining operations cease, so does the pumping.

Eventually the mine fills with water and discharges into the nearest stream. In West Virginia, as elsewhere, legions of abandoned mines now pollute streams and threaten aquatic life.

“Acidic water is not the only issue caused by acid mine drainage,” writes Daniel Kirby in a paper for Marshall University. “As the flowing water mixes with mine wastes and other mining leftovers, it picks up metals and other substances that pollute the water to the point of danger to ecosystems. In addition to acidity, there are elevated concentrations of materials like iron, aluminum, magnesium, and other metals and materials in the water.”

Given enough time, the particles settle into the streambed, creating a condition called “yellow boy,” which looks like it sounds. These streams can be completely devoid of invertebrates and fish life.

Even with modern laws requiring mining companies to put up a bond to finance mitigation, companies  still declare bankruptcy, or they’re sold to larger companies that sell off assets while reneging on liabilities.

It’s a huge problem for West Virginia’s rivers and streams. It’s one that has been left for taxpayers and citizens’ groups to clean up—and monitor indefinitely. One project along Decker Creek near Morgantown, WV, has already cost about five million dollars, and will cost more. Closer to home, the upper Potomac River also experiences acid mine drainage.

Currently, treatment is the only feasible option. Maybe you’ve seen a lime dozer when out on a hike or plying for trout in a small stream. The dozer is a small waterwheel with buckets that fill with water until gravity tips another bucket into the stream with a small dose of lime. Over time and thousands of doses, the lime neutralizes the acidy of the water.

There are other treatment options, all of which alter the chemistry of water to neutralize the problem. None of them is a cure. Think of acid mine drainage as a chronic illness—one we’ll be financing forever.

A waterway damaged by acid mine drainage

Allowable Pollution

It happens every three years. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reviews allowable standards for a list of contaminants to determine whether they should be weakened (often the case) or strengthened. It’s a process called the West Virginia Triennial Review of Water Quality Standards. Items on the table include bromide, bacteria, heavy metals, conductivity, fecal coliform—and others. And the review is underway right now.

It also includes a classification for waterways called Category A. The name is technical, but the impact is like a grade in school: “A” is the best grade. Category A rivers and streams receive protection as potential drinking-water sources, meaning that with conventional treatment, it can meet the minimum standards for drinking water.

Remarkably, in West Virginia, all rivers and streams are deemed Category A unless specifically excluded. It doesn’t mean they’re all clean; it means they can be made legally drinkable. It’s a standard that says: “This water ain’t so bad we can’t fix it.”

Few things get the coal and chemical industry worked up like Category A. They have proposed excluding all West Virginia rivers and streams except small sections closest to existing public drinking water intakes. Rebecca R. McPhail, head of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, has said, “Making all rivers Category A is like making the speed limit on all roads twenty-five mph—in case they’re one day turned into highways.”

Angie Rosser, executive director of West Virginia Rivers Coalition, says Category A is an economic development issue. “Applying it to all streams keeps options available for finding water suitable for drinking in the future,” she noted. “It keeps West Virginia attractive for businesses and citizens that are currently in West Virginia, or that might locate here in the future.”

Nearly 40,000 miles of rivers and streams are involved. Industry acknowledges the change would increase the concentration of pollutants in most waterways, and that it would impact whether people could safely swim or fish in sections of these streams.

Standards for aluminum and selenium are another area where industry and clean water advocates clash. For years the standard has been based on … standards, like monitoring water quality. This summer, the legislature changed that. Now fish tissue sampling will be used to assess whether fish are being impacted by selenium—a naturally occurring element that is harmless in small doses.

In concentrated doses, young fish develop physical deformities that, among other things, prevent reproduction. At face value, tissue sampling isn’t necessarily bad, as long as there are fish to sample. But a new, weaker standard for aluminum and selenium has been adopted—scientists say it could result in fewer fish to sample.

Rosser says the U.S. EPA has put DEP on notice that its proposed standards are suspect. “We continue to advocate sound science over the industry-backed weaker standards,” she said.

Ironically, fish tissue sampling, and weaker standards together, would solve a problem for regulators. If fish can’t reproduce, there would be fewer fish to test. Over time, fewer still.

No fish to test. No problem.

Nutrients Aren’t Nutritious

It’s ironic that one of the major problems of water quality is our food supply. Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that feed algae. In excess, algae cloud out and kill aquatic vegetation, decimating fish habitat and making all of us sick if we ingest the water when swimming or boating. And that’s just the beginning.

Nitrogen gets into water from fertilizers and manure—especially from poultry-confined animal feeding operations and from cattle. It’s not just the volume of waste produced by millions of birds; it’s what’s in the waste. Phosphorus is added as a nutrient to poultry feed. But poultry can “utilize” only so much phosphorus; the rest ends up in manure, which ends up in water.

In recent years, the industry has begun to change their feed so that the birds take up phosphorus more efficiently. That means they can use less phosphorous, reducing the amount of it that gets in water. That’s a bit of good news. But a hundred million birds a year put out a lot of waste.

Livestock grazing and fertilizers applied to fields continues to be a major problem—one that is being addressed with money from U.S. taxpayers. Fencing animals out of streams, providing alternative sources of water, and planting trees and grasses along stream banks are tried-and-true methods of keeping excess nitrogen out of waterways. But they are expensive. Federal grants to states are reducing nitrogen loading, but because the programs require voluntary participation from cash-strapped farmers—and because much of the funding comes from reimbursements—progress can be slow.

The state’s budget woes have made it harder. There are funds for projects and there are interested farmers, but the state recently laid off more than 30 foresters—some of whom specialized in working with farmers.

Another source of nitrogen in water comes from aging wastewater treatment plants. As these are replaced or upgraded to modern standards, nitrogen loading is decreasing. Again, a slow process, and one that requires vigilance in enforcement (an area where West Virginia has been historically lax).

It’s often hard for farmland protection advocates to come to grips with the effects of lost farmland. It can mean cleaner water. “Cattle manure isn’t processed through a wastewater treatment plant,” said Matthew Pennington of the Region 9 Planning and Development office. “If a farm is doing all the best management practices, like installing filters and buffers, that’s okay. On well-managed farms, nutrients are taken up by crops. But if you’re applying nutrients in excess, it’s washing into a stream.”

That means that sometimes, “… moving acreage from an unregulated economy like farming to a regulated one with modern sewage plants has helped get nitrogen out of water,” said Pennington. Farmland advocates have a saying: “Eat the view.” Yes, but you can’t necessarily drink it.

Despite the improvements in wastewater treatment and gains in farming practices, there is still way too much nitrogen in West Virginia rivers and streams. But the state is making progress toward meeting its commitments under the Chesapeake Bay Agreement to clean up the rivers that drain to the bay.

Mountaintop Mining

If you’ve driven through the southern coalfields, you’ve seen the effects. Where once there were forested mountains, now there are flattop reclamation mounds that meet the state’s standards for putting mountains back together after they’ve been dismantled.

What you don’t see are stream valleys; they’re no longer there. They’ve been filled in by mining operations. Huge machines called draglines, some able to scoop up to 100 tons in a single load, push rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys, burying waterways.

Mountain top removal site in neighboring Pike County, KY / photo: iLoveMountains.org

In Appalachia, mountaintop mining has affected an estimated 1.4 million acres of forested hills, and buried an estimated 2,000 miles of streams. Leachate from containment ponds has poisoned drinking water.

A sad fact of West Virginia’s water crisis of 2014: thousands of people whose water was affected were formerly on wells. They were put on public water supplies because their wells were no longer safe due to mountaintop mining and mine drainage.

The coal industry is reeling from cheap oil, cheap natural gas, and cheaper coal from Wyoming and the West. Despite the rhetoric of a War on Coal, marketplace economics are changing the fortunes of coal and closing mines in the wake.

Natural Gas Pipelines

The Marcellus gas play, which stretches through the Virginias to New York’s Southern Tier, has been called the Saudi Arabia of America. Truth be told, many environmentalists once favored gas because it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels and has a smaller impact on global warming. Then came hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling. Together, these technologies enabled energy companies to reach vast reserves that were previously not feasible.

Fracking has created a challenge to regulators. Nationally, politicians tout “clean energy” solutions to global warming and energy security. Locally, fracking has created a host of problems for water. It takes millions of gallons of water permanently out of circulation; it has fouled wells; and the waste has overwhelmed landfills.

Enter Russia.

In natural gas, there are two super-powers: the United States and Russia. With the end of the Cold War, Russia became the primary supplier of natural gas to Europe. With the fracking boom, that’s a role the U.S. wants to play.

To do this, massive pipeline projects are planned to move gas to the Atlantic Coast. Gas pipelines of this scale over mountainous terrain are new. In West Virginia alone, it means crossing over or under more than a hundred rivers and streams—for each proposed pipeline. It means going up and over mountains. These massive pipelines require constant feeding so that the pressure remains constant (creating even more pressure to drill).

The operational safety of these pipelines aside, construction is the issue. Thousands of miles of pipelines are needed to feed the lines. Hundreds of miles of pipelines are needed to transport the gas to the big lines. All of it requires cutting wide swaths of forest over mountains to lay the pipelines.

Most of us don’t think of dirt as a pollutant. Fish do. Millions of tons of soil can erode into streams during construction. This could change the ecology of streams for a generation or longer. That’s just from construction. We have the technology to mitigate these impacts, but do we have the enforcement in place and the guts to use it?

An Uncertain Future

It’s summer. We all like cheap energy. We like our air conditioners.

We all want safe water. We deride the energy industry for the pollution they cause. We complain about water bills that carry the cost of removing metals and animal waste.

We like cheap food. We can’t help ourselves. When the cost of sustainably raised local beef, pork, and poultry is 50 cents more per pound than the super market special, we go to the grocery store. We know that industrial food is subsidized, yet we buy it.

We elect politicians that promise us a box of chocolates and a long stem rose. Everybody knows, says the Leonard Cohen song.

When you look into still water, you see your reflection.

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