Working The Rivers: Their Importance, Inside Appalachia

Jan 3, 2020

It may be winter, but work on the waterways around Appalachia never stops. In this episode of Inside Appalachia, we are listening back to an episode that originally aired over the summer about people who work on the rivers.

Our rivers are a vital part of our identity as Appalachians. We depend on them for survival, recreation and transportation. And we depend on rivers for economic reasons, too. 


In this episode:

This week, we meet some of the people who work in the river boat industry in West Virginia to hear how they see the future. While we expected to talk economics, the conversations went another direction.

Working In The River

Eric Garnder, a commercial diver on the Kanawha River, clears the propellers from a working tow boat.
Credit Eric Douglas / WVPB

Many times, people who work on the rivers see our trash long after we have forgotten about it. Eric Gardner, a commercial diver on the Kanawha and Ohio rivers, sees it all. Eric Douglas brings us his story about working on the river and especially how the trash he sees eventually flows to the ocean. 

“You will have an island full of trash, different debris, tires, refrigerators, anything plastic just floats,” Gardner said. “It'd be nice if we could come up with a plan and try to work with Army Corps of Engineers to where we may be able to stop this from happening.”

We followed up with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about what Gardner said about the trash in the river. Their spokesperson told us there is no safe and cost-effective way for the locks and dam workers to remove the trash from the river. They treat it all like natural debris and let it flow down the river.

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Tow Boats

Charlie Jones, chairman of Amherst Madison.
Credit Eric Douglas / WVPB

Editor's Note: We are sorry to report that Charlie Jones has passed away since this story first aired.  

And we speak with 101-year-old Charlie Jones, the chairman of Amherst Madison, one of the river boat companies that has lasted through the downturn in coal production. The handful of riverboat companies that still operate in Appalachia have primarily made the majority of their money towing coal barges. But a downturn in coal production meant many of these companies had to look to other ways to stay afloat.

“If you look at all the companies that have tried to survive by doing the same thing, they haven't been able to make it," he said.

He blamed the Obama Administration for the majority of the reduction in coal production, which he said hurt his industry. 

“President Obama started this crusade shutting down coal mines,” Jones said, pointing to environmental regulations that put restrictions on the emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Still, even though he does not agree with the way these regulations were rolled out, Jones said he does believe we have to clean up our air. He does not call himself an environmentalist, but a pragmatist. 

“Are we concerned about the quality of our air? Well let's do something about it," he said. "We're not doing anything about it right now. I’d say there's a big challenge ahead of us.”

He said he thinks the planet has a limit, and points out that in his lifetime, the population across the globe has exploded.

“I think you just got to be practical," Jones added. "You can't keep loading a planet up with people. Unless you do something with the toxicity they produce.”

Coal Ash Spill Leaves Toxic Legacy in TN

Sometimes, industry fails to keep our rivers safe. That is what happened in Kingston, Tenn. in 2008. More than a billion gallons of coal ash flooded several homes and contaminated the Emory River.

Coal ash is a by-product that builds up when power companies produce electricity from coal. 

Since the Kingston spill, there have been subsequent coal ash spills elsewhere throughout our region. Only recently have scientists begun to realize the scope of some of the long-term health effects of the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee. “Broken Ground” is a new podcast from the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

Host and producer Claudine Ebeid McElwain and her producers spent six months looking back at the impacts that the coal ash spill had for the community of Kingston and the workers who helped clean up the spill.

What’s in a Name?

Since this week we are exploring stories about how people interact with our rivers, we wanted to dig a little deeper into a debate we have had here in our newsroom over the origins of the name of one of our rivers, and how to pronounce it. If you have ever been to Morgantown, West Virginia you have probably driven over or near the Monongahela River.

What's the correct pronounciation of the Monongahela River?

Mo-noun-GEE-ha-la

Monongah-EE-la

Monongah-A-la

Mon-on-ga-hEE-la.

Listen to the show to find out and to hear more about the roots behind the name.

Veteran Says Fly Fishing Saved His Life 

Kyle Chanitz ties a fly at his home studio in Roanoke, Virginia.
Credit Mason Adams / WVPB

We also hear a story from one of our new folklife corps reporters. Mason Adams profiled Kyle Chanitz, an Army vet who says fly fishing saved his life. 

Music in this episode was provided by Matt Jackfert, Blue Dot Sessions, and Dinosaur Burps

Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer.  Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Kara Lofton edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens.