The lingering heartbreak of a ruined watershed

environment

Since 2012, we’ve lived in the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia. It’s a beautiful area, full of steep mountainsides, deep canyons, and burbling waterfalls. The region has seen a revival of sorts in the past decade or so, attracting tourists, second home owners, and new residents alike. Many come to explore the area’s unique combination of outdoor recreation opportunities and beautiful natural landscapes.

Many visitors don’t realize that this natural beauty is hard-won. Countless individuals and organizations have fought (and continue to fight) to restore the local environment to good health.

Why is “restoration” necessary? A century ago, this region’s economy was driven by extractive industry—timber and coal. Felling the dense old-growth forest devastated the ecosystem, destroying native species’ habitats and literally washing away the topsoil. Fortunately, over the decades, the forests have regrown. The woods aren’t what they once were, but they are still beautiful.

Coal mining had a harsher, longer-lasting impact.

Acid mine drainage

When a coal company abandons a mine, it shuts down its pumps and allows the tunnels to flood. Water seeps in, bathes the exposed sulfur-bearing rock, and flows out again—only now, it’s highly acidic and infused with heavy metals. This toxic outflow flushes into the nearby watershed, coating everything in a tell-tale orange muck and acidifying the stream itself. Many types of aquatic wildlife struggle to survive in the lower pH; this results in decreased biodiversity and lower animal populations. For humans, the water is undrinkable and unsafe to touch.

Acid mine drainage can persist for centuries; in a very real sense, afflicted watersheds are permanently ruined. Yes, there are mitigation strategies to deal with acidic run-off. But even the most effective methods don’t actually prevent spoiled outflow from entering the watershed; they simply add something else to the water (e.g. lime) to neutralize the acidic pollutants. These approaches treat the symptom, rather than the underlying disease, which has no cure.

Mining’s true cost

When debating coal’s impact, we rarely factor in the cost of preventing permanent watershed degradation. Yes, it’s prohibitively expensive to coat miles of passageways with cement and seal those toxic metals underground. But that should be figured into the coal companies profita and loss calculation. If you can’t afford to fill the hole, don’t dig it in the first place. If you can’t restore the waterways to their pre-mining condition, then you can’t afford to mine. Communities dependent on the watershed shouldn’t be forced to pay for your shortsightedness with their health.

A dose of realism

Of course, given the current political climate, extractive firms won’t be held to this high standard anytime soon. And even if they were, that wouldn’t restore the degraded rivers of our adopted home, since the companies responsible have long since evaporated or been absorbed by other energy companies.

So, while I still love to visit the highlands’ waterfalls and wetlands, those trips are bittersweet, since I know that the beauty masks deadly problems bubbling up from underground. ■