For the past 20 years, coal-mining companies have been using mountain top removal, blasting the tops off of mountain, to access coal in Appalachia. The problem with this technique for paddlers is where the tailings go. The excess dirt, minerals, and material are dumped into valleys and streams. From 1985 to 2001, 724 miles of streams were buried under mining waste, according to the environmental impact statement accompanying the new rule. If current practices continue, another 724 river miles will be buried by 2018, the report says.
The Rich Creek case the Sierra Club and the Ansted Historic Preservation Council issued against Powellton (a subsidiary of Fola Coal Company and Consol Energy)for violation of the Clean Water Act is just one example of many of how the practice affects streams and local communities. Fortunately for the whitewater world, the classic run on the lower Gualey won’t be affected by this particular case.
“It’s not likely the Rich Creek case is going to affect the Gauley that we all know and love,” Kevin Colburn, the National Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, says.
Rich Creek enters the Gauley miles below the classic whitewater section. But mining is likely to increase. As part of a fleet of environmental policy changes from the departing Bush administration, the rule that mandates mine waste is dumped a minimum of 100 feet from creeks has been changed to give mining companies more discretion. The new rule enshrines the practice of mountain top removal and is likely to facilitate its expansion.
“It is an issue right now for the Gauley. We’re not going to go to the Gauley next year and see it flowing orange, but a few years down the road, it could happen. There are coal reserves nearby and mining is going to increase,” Colburn says. He added that American Whitewater has already received emails from members expressing their concern about the practice.
“These are the kind of things that people can change if they make it a priority. If nobody cries foul, it could be on the books for years,” he said.
The potential damage to the environment could be irreversible. If you’d like to get involved in helping protect Appalachian creeks and streams from mountain top removal, check out http://www.sierraclub.org/mtr/.