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The series, West Virginia Water Trails, explores waterways in southern West Virginia. Listen to hear stories from communities coming together, to create new economies — with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.

W.Va. Water Trails: Retired W.Va. DEP Inspector Reflects On Stream Restoration Work

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Rock structure in the Little Coal River as part of the restoration plan.

For decades, waterways in West Virginia have been used for dumping everything from coal waste to car tires. Restoring them will take years of work. Part of that work involves restructuring streams so that they support fish habitat.

Retired Department of Environmental Protection Inspector Bill Simmons was instrumental in bringing a restoration method to West Virginia streams. The method adds structures in the water way that slow down the water flow and provide fish habitat. It all started on a float trip on the Little Coal River. That's when Simmons got a call that there was a fish kill upstream. Jessica Lilly spoke with Simmons about that experience and about the importance of restoring West Virginia streams.

This story is the final of a series called West Virginia Water Trails. Hear stories from people coming together across southern West Virginia, to create new economies and communities- with waterways. It’s made possible in part by the National Coal Heritage Area Authority. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Lilly: When you found the fish kill, what kind of things were in the water? What is it that we're talking about that had to be removed and fixed?

Simmons: Well, what happened in the fish kill, and that happened on Pond Fork of the Little Coal River, was a chemical spill that they used to treat preparation plant water, and somehow a tank was hit and opened and killed fish for like five or six miles downstream. They turned the tank off, the flow off.

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Little Coal River before restoration.

What we did was that we asked the coal company to do the stream restoration plan. Stock that section of a stream for five years with trout during the normal trout stocking seasons. They had an annual trash clean up on that section of stream where we had the fish kill and plus the work they had to do around the mountainside to prevent that from happening again.

Lilly: Traditionally in West Virginia, when you talk to communities, people remember black water flowing through the rivers, they remember that.

Simmons: There've been a lot of “Wow!” moments. I learned a lot about bug life and what lives in sand and what lives in rocks, and actually wouldn't, when the structures were being built.

So you'd have an excavator in the stream digging out prior to the structure. It was kind of like going through a history of coal mining where you might find a quarter inch of black sediment and you go down a few more feet and you find two feet, or you know, six inches or four inches. The layers of black sediment got bigger and bigger, the deeper you went. And there were several times when the excavator would dig into the bottom of the stream. And it was like a fresh black water spill, that stuff was still there. It was like a history of the river.

Now when you look at the river, the amazing thing is the sand was not always white along the river. It had the coal stain to it but now we got white beaches all up and down the river., There was a lot of work and cooperation between the DNR (Division of Natural Resources) and the mining companies and all up there was a lot of people that did the right thing to make the black water and in the streams better.

Jessica: What does it mean to you now, when you go down there, and you see those white beaches on the Little Coal River specifically?

Simmons: It's just, it feels good. You know, and we're still working on it. I mean, we got a lot to do. The studies we have now show that the structures work, but we got areas in between structures where we need to add more structures. So we're still working on it.

Lilly: Anything else you want to add that I'm missing? 

Simmons: Well, the Little Coal like all the other streams in southern West Virginia has had a historical trash problem. And fortunately, we're looking better here. You don't see as much of it. The ecology of the streams is way better than it used to be.

You can't expect volunteers to pick up trash all the time. They'll do it. But they need help. People don't want to come and look at trash. People love it down here, but they can't stay in the trash.
Bill Simmons, Retired DEP Inspector

But as the mining activity decreases in West Virginia, we need to look ahead, but the hard part is, especially with state government, you say the legislature and our Department of Commerce and Parks and Tourism talk about bringing more tourism into the state. As a little canoe and kayak operator person and working with the Coal River Group volunteering, the trash is a thing. When I had my kayak rental business, I had people from all over the country coming in here and I'd say, “How was your float?” and they would say “Ah, it was beautiful, except for the tires in the river.”

We can't expect volunteers to pick up all his trash. We need help to motivate people where it's financially putting deposits on bottles, but something needs to happen. So if we could put a bounty like $2 a tire, I mean, you can have all kinds of fundraisers where you get these high school football players and these guys in the summertime pulling tires out. Instead of putting kids on some kind of work program, they're gonna get paid for how much work they do, and not sitting around for an hour. Give these kids $2 for a tire to get them out of here. I think it'd be a heck of a way and then the REAP (Rehabilitation Environmental Action Plan) guys would come pick them up and haul them away.

You can't expect volunteers to pick up trash all the time. They'll do it. But they need help. People don't want to come and look at trash. People love it down here, but they can't stay in the trash.

Southern W.Va. Bureau Chief, Reporter/Producer, jlilly@wvpublic.org, 304-384-5981, @JessicaYLilly

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