I was raised in the coal mining community of Slab Fork in southern Raleigh County. My great-grandfather, the original William Gaston Caperton, founded the town in 1907.
In my youth, many of the creeks and streams in the area ran black every time it rained. All the 250 homes and mining facilities in Slab Fork and surrounding towns were heated with inefficient coal stoves and furnaces. This resulted in a haze in the valleys during cold weather. Anyone who lived in that era can distinctly remember the smell of sulfur in the air.
When coming to the Kanawha Valley for our semi-annual trips to buy clothes, the air was thick with smog. There was no recreational activity on the Kanawha River. We have a picture at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection headquarters showing the contrast between Charleston in 1960 and today. The visual is dramatic. It is difficult to imagine living in that earlier environment.
Surface mining was called strip mining, because a narrow strip was cut around the mountain and the resulting spoil material was shoved over the edge with no effort to control runoff into our creeks. The effects of acid mine drainage were not considered to be an issue.
Living in Slab Fork for 20 years prior to the Federal Clean Air (1970), Clean Water (1972) and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Acts (1977), coupled with my current role as DEP Cabinet Secretary, has given me a unique perspective. That perspective is one of our amazing progress in restoring and protecting our environment as a state and a nation.
Today, the water and air in Slab Fork are pristine compared to 50 years ago. And if you know the right places to look, you can catch a trophy brown trout.
Today in the Kanawha Valley, the air is clear, and the river is alive with recreational activity, not to mention the proliferation of aquatic life. Bass fishing tournaments are held virtually every weekend during the spring and summer on the Kanawha River.
As a result of modern reclamation practices adopted and developed under the Surface Mining Act, we have elk in West Virginia once again. There are nearly 100 breeding elk in Logan County. Elk need open ground, and reclaimed surface mines are perfect habitat.
Elk were a once native species in West Virginia, and thanks to clean air, clean water and advanced mine restoration techniques, they are back. So much so that soon you will be able to visit the Elk Viewing Center, designed by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources with construction funding provided by an Abandoned Mine Lands grant from the DEP.
Also, consider our water. West Virginia has over 35,000 miles of rivers and streams. When the Clean Water Act was passed, many streams and rivers were lifeless as the result of the industrial revolution of the 20th Century. After the implementation of the Clean Water Act, our state began working to correct past environmental mistakes. We have been very successful in restoring water quality and aquatic life of our state waterways.
The DEP and DNR, in concert with conservation groups, industry and the federal government, have spent the last five decades working to restore our streams and rivers. Today, many of those once lifeless streams are alive again and support thousands of native species that evolved here over millions of years.
A shining example of this cooperation is the DEP’s Special Reclamation Group’s T & T Mining project recently completed in Preston County. The last 4.5 miles of Muddy Creek, flowing directly into the Cheat River, were lifeless as the result of multiple abandoned mines in the area. Adding to the problem was a massive acid mine water discharge in 1994 from a previously abandoned coal mine. Treatment methods were installed, but were inadequate to fully restore life to the stream.
Recently, DEP — in cooperation with the Friends of Cheat Watershed Association, Southwest Energy, the DNR, the EPA and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining — came up with a solution to the problem. Rather than treating each separate acid mine drainage source, all are gathered and piped to a central treatment plant designed by employees of the DEP.
One year after the start of the facility, the stream is now teeming with life. Now, the lower 4.5 miles of Muddy Creek are connected to the upper 12 miles, which were already healthy.
As you may suspect, the three federal environmental acts were not popular among the nation’s business community when they were first enacted. How could the U.S. take on the cost burden of these new laws and compete financially with the rest of the world? But the net result of those actions taken by Congress has been a vastly improved environment along with the largest and most vibrant economy in the world.
The Clean Air, Clean Water and Surface Mining Acts — through permitting and enforcement — place requirements on the development and operation of virtually every facility in the United States, including your highways. The requirements imposed by those federal laws are based on science and research primarily conducted by the EPA, and designed to protect human health and aquatic life.
The state still has much work to do. At the DEP, we have about 800 hardworking and dedicated employees doing just that. I could not be prouder to serve them and the citizens of West Virginia in this most important task.