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New River Gorge wraps up first summer as a national park

FAYETTEVILLE — John and Linda Stimpson of Norfolk, Virginia, arrived Tuesday at New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, completing a trip from Asheville, North Carolina.

They took a few moments to relax at the Canyon Rim Visitors’ Center. The gorge in all its splendor spread before them, but John Stimpson had suspended judgment. “Well, we just got here,” he said.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail 

It’s official and the sign says it.

The Stimpsons have visited 58 of 63 national parks. Some are lousy, he proclaimed, reserving particular ire for Indiana Dunes National Park. The dunes are nothing spectacular, he stressed, and got no more impressive when the place transitioned from a state to national park.

“This one has to be better than that,” he said.

By all accounts, New River visitors – spending the first summer in the park since its national park designation in December 2020 — have been easier to please than Stimpson was in Indiana. The summer is in the books and all is well. People had a good time. Word of mouth spread. New River will remain a national park. And that is key.

“This is probably the busiest summer anybody can remember having here,” said Dave Bieri, the park’s district supervisor for interpretation. “Last year, all over the country, there were lots of people out on trails, lots of people outdoors. It just sort of carried over. Now they’re coming for New River Gorge National Park.”

Established in 1978 as a national river, the protected park area stretches 53 miles from Sandstone Falls near Hinton to adjacent Hawks Nest State Park near Ansted.

Bieri said it’s well known many people are plain old national park junkies, such as the Stimpsons. Plenty of New River visitors showed up with national park stickers and such.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail photos 

Father and daughter are silhouetted against the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in a window at the Canyon Rim Visitors Center.

Seeds of 2021’s success were sewn in the disaster of 2020. Afraid to get near each other last summer, outdoor types took to the outdoors. Regardless of whether another major COVID surge looms, at least the new park got in a season of relative normalcy.

Campgrounds were often full, forcing visitors to find other places to land. Some did it “back country” style, with heavy backpacks. Before, mostly locals took advantage of the campground accommodations, with hardly a need to reserve a spot.

The Chatterjee family of Boston had a great time. They did not complain about staying in Gauley Bridge, about 15 miles away. They didn’t complain about anything. Prateep Chatterjee, father to 12-year-old Aritro and husband to Rita, was already familiar with Sandstone Falls. As a student at Virginia Tech, Prateep and friends periodically took road trips to Sandstone. Fond memories remain.

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Twelve-year-old old Aritro Chatterjee of Boston, Mass. gets sworn in as a junior ranger by Collette Pilon, a visitor services assistant at the Canyon Rim Visitor.

At New River, the family had done a lot of kayaking and hiking during their first three days. Aritro acquired a new kayak. They had not been whitewater rafting. On the food front, Fayetteville’s flagship Pies and Pints earned high marks, as did an Oak Hill ice cream shop whose name the family couldn’t remember.

“I’ve really enjoyed the hiking,” Aritro said. “Such vistas. And kayaking on the New.”

New River’s designation benefits not just it, but, as evidenced by the Chatterjee’s choice of lodging, surrounding communities. The postcard town of Fayetteville is an obvious beneficiary. It is one of a handful towns connected by busy U.S. 19.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail 

Downtown Fayetteville has no doubt benefited from New River Gorge National Park visitors.

That aspect makes New River unique, said Bieri, who came to West Virginia from Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas, 55 miles from Carlsbad, New Mexico, and 110 miles from El Paso, Texas. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” he said of the Texas park.

Despite West Virginia’s role as an overwhelmingly rural state, one of its two national parks — Harpers Ferry National Historical Park is the other — is situated amid relative hustle and bustle. The road generates a certain amount of litter, which is the only complaint Bieri has heard about New River. He can’t move the road.

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail 

Avery Park, 20, of San Francisco, said she was attracted to the Gorge for its legendary rock climbing, not necessarily its National Park designation.

“Things have gone as well as they could have this year,” Bieri said. “We’ve noticed an increase in numbers but not incidents. This is what a lot of people do. They come to national parks, plan their vacations around them.”

Bieri cited park website figures that show 9,000 site visits in February 2020 compared to 80,000 visits in February 2021, after the renaming.

Avery Park, 20, of San Francisco, is not necessarily a national park disciple. She wasn’t fully aware New River had gained the designation. But she knew plenty about the gorge. It is one of the East Coast’s premier climbing sites. She and friends were close to wrapping up a week at the park.

She talked while she browsed at Water Stone Outdoors in downtown Fayetteville.

“It’s been nice, maybe not as crowded as I thought it might be,” she said. ‘The climbing’s a little spicy, a little tricky. People here have been super friendly, though they’re not all from here.”

Park said she lived in New York before San Francisco. “It’s kind of nice to step away from all that.”

KENNY KEMP | Gazette-Mail 

Fayetteville Mayor Sharon Cruikshank says her town’s hospitality will be an asset to the park.

Fayetteville Mayor Sharon Cruickshank said the future is bright for the park. She spoke casually of the need for better signage and more parking. Country roads also require a learning curve but all the other ingredients are there, she said.

“Some roadways are probably better left to people familiar with one-lane roads,” she said, smiling. “But our people are very friendly. People remember that a lot, that West Virginia hospitality we’re known for and always have been.”

New treatment for SMA helping local man who wants to raise awareness

A new treatment approved last fall by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for spinal muscular atrophy is helping a Charleston man, and he wants others to know about the possibilities.

Spinal muscular atrophy is a genetic motor neuron disease affecting the body’s central and peripheral nervous systems, as well as muscle movements. The disease stops nerve cells in the spine from sending signals to muscle systems, which can atrophy due to lack of stimulation.

It can cause difficulty with basic functions, including breathing, swallowing and walking.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the disease is the leading genetic cause of infant mortality. There are four types of spinal muscular atrophy, some of which can go undiagnosed in babies and infants.

Studies show the earlier onset the symptoms are, the more debilitating the disease’s progression can be.

Eric Arnold, 35, was diagnosed when he was 2.

“When I was that young, and they were figuring it out, you know, I would cry when they’d try to get me to stand. There were some basic developmental issues,” said Arnold, who works as a lawyer.

His mother, a health care worker, spoke to medical experts and found a brain surgeon to work with Arnold toward an eventual diagnosis.

“Ever since the diagnosis, we sort of figured out how everything works and what we had to do,” Arnold said. “I’ve been able to do a lot on my own, and I think I was lucky enough to have two parents who always taught and told me there was nothing I couldn’t do, other than my physical limitations.”

Arnold said he is “high functioning” compared to many others with spinal muscular atrophy. Recently, he began a newly approved treatment that is making his day-to-day life easier in small, but meaningful ways.

He speaks more clearly now, he said. It’s easier to eat. Basic, everyday things take less time and energy.

“Those are the functional markers of the drug that we’ve seen so far that are little things that make life truly easier, and that’s the important thing,” Arnold said. “Hopefully, down the road I’ll get stronger and those improvements will continue. The functional things have got to matter, and differences in them are huge, in any way.”

Risdiplam, distributed under the brand name Evrysdi and clinically developed by Genentech, Inc., was approved by the FDA in August 2020 to treat people with spinal muscular atrophy. The oral treatment differs from previous options -- one that relied on spinal injections and another that is a one-time intravenous infusion.

The treatment gained FDA approval based on two clinical studies among infants 2 to 7 months and in people 2 to 25.

Untreated, the disease is commonly fatal for infants, according to the National Institutes of Health. Half of infants died by 7 months and 90% by age 1.

The clinical studies for Evrysdi showed 90% of infants alive without permanent ventilation at 1 year old. Among patients ages 2 to 25, there were “clinically-meaningful and statistically-significant improvement[s] in motor function,” according to the study.

The news excites Arnold, whose parents were told when he was a child that he wouldn’t live past 10.

“What I want to do now is let other people know, people who might have kids with this disease one day or who have it, there are options out there,” he said. “This [Evrysdi] has helped me a lot, but it could help your child even more, earlier on.”

Arnold said he’s thankful for the support systems he has built in Charleston based on awareness of the disease and new treatments.

He and his family host a golf tournament each October for spinal muscular atrophy awareness, he said.

“My dad is a big golfer and would always golf for the Heart Association, the hospital, everything. He asked my mom one year what she wanted, and she said, ‘Why don’t you golf for Eric?’” Arnold said.

The tournament is held at Berry Hills Country Club every Columbus Day.

“This year it’s going to be a celebration,” Arnold said. “There are people I haven’t seen throughout COVID-19 and being locked down, waiting for the treatment. I’m going to be able to show them the differences this drug has made.”

"Here we go again": Residents, forest advocates oppose bid to reinstate mine permits near Kanawha State Forest

Barney Frazier was flipping through the newspaper last month when he was jarred by a blast from the past.

He’d been hoping the blasts would stay there.

“Oh, goodness, it’s just here we go again,” Frazier said. “Here we are again.”

Frazier, 72, of Charleston had come across a legal ad announcing that a Milton-based coal mining company that filed for bankruptcy in 2019 had applied to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to reinstate three mining permits to another coal company.

The new permittee would be the same coal company that first proposed 17 years ago steep-slope mining between Rush Creek and its right fork in the shadow of Kanawha State Forest behind his home.

“It dredges up everything that I’ve been dealing with since 2004,” Frazier said, sitting at a table near the front door of the red-brick Mount Alpha Road home into which he and his wife, Jackie, moved that year.

The Fraziers learned four months after moving in that Keystone Industries, LLC, a Florida-based coal company, planned to bore into coal seams and conduct blasting operations some 3,000 feet south of their new house.

So Frazier rallied his neighbors — some of whom lived closer to the proposed mine than he did — and lawmakers against the permit application. They got the Kanawha County Commission to oppose the application and then-U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and then-state Delegate Charles R. “Rusty” Webb, R-Kanawha, to write letters to the DEP expressing concern about the proposed mine site.

But the agency issued the permit for the Rush Creek No. 2 Mine to Keystone Industries in 2006, setting the stage for years of environmental violations and impacts on and around the Fraziers’ home.

Blasting rattled their windows once or twice a week. Light from night mining grew brighter as operations moved nearer.

“It’s just aggravating as can be,” said Frazier, a retired attorney who worked as an underground coal miner for five years and was born and raised in Logan County.

In 2013, Keystone transferred the permit and two others for surface mines in the Rush Creek area to Revelation Energy, LLC, the Milton-based company and nation’s sixth-largest coal producer that operated the mines until the permits were revoked in October 2020 — 15 months after the company and its affiliate Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The other two mines for which Keystone transferred permits to Revelation were the nearby Rush Creek No. 1 and Keystone Development No. 1 — after the DEP issued 40 violation notices to Keystone and owner Tom Scholl for sediment control and revegetation failures and exceeding water pollution limits.

Now Revelation is looking to reinstate and transfer the permits back to Keystone after both left the land scarred and the water impaired around the perimeter of Kanawha State Forest.

“I was just totally shocked,” Frazier says. “I didn’t see it coming.”

So on a rainy August weekday afternoon, Frazier and three members of the volunteer Kanawha Forest Coalition consider what’s driving them to fight the same coal company again. The group submitted monitoring data that led to a 2016 DEP order for Keystone permanently ending mining at the Keystone Development No. 2 mine permit.

Seated to Frazier’s right, Chad Cordell remembered drinking from clear springs and eating wild blueberries from the hills around Rush Creek as a kid before leaving the state in 1997. When he came back in 2009, the hills had been blasted to rubble.

“There’s got to be citizen eyes on the ground, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of energy,” Cordell says. “It’s daunting to get back into this.”

The coalition has unsuccessfully urged the DEP to reject the companies’ applications to renew their permits — including Keystone’s still active Keystone Development No. 2 permit — and filed reports with the agency.

The failures have been many.

In a February 2014 water impact assessment intended to determine whether Keystone Development and the Rush Creek No. 2 mines were designed to prevent damage outside their permit areas, DEP geologist Forrest Jones concluded both were “expected to be environmentally successful” and contended he was “unaware of any outstanding environmental problems” in the area.

Jones cited a “general windshield tour” to assert the “existing mines have performed environmentally well,” that “amply designed sediment control structures” would be “more than adequate” to protect against damaging amounts of sediment entering tributaries of Davis Creek. Proposed mining was designed to “consistently comply” with water quality standards.

“He was wrong on every single count,” Cordell said.

State environmental regulators had already issued 16 violation notices for the Rush Creek No. 2 permit for sediment control failures, toxic mine drainage and exceeding air blast limits. Fifteen notices came while Keystone was still the permittee before its 2013 permit transfer to Revelation.

Fifty-four more notices have followed at the Rush Creek No. 2 for similar offenses and 72 at KD No. 2, including 15 for sediment control failures.

Permits for those mines and the neighboring Rush Creek No. 1 and KD No. 1 mines have been assessed a combined 177 notices by the DEP since the former was first issued in 2001 totaling $188,697 in fines for Keystone and Revelation.

Rush Creek and its right fork and nearby Kanawha Fork were added to the state’s list of impaired streams in 2016.

“They’ve essentially killed Rush Creek,” Cordell says.

The DEP has two cases pending against Revelation and one against Keystone in Kanawha County Circuit Court for collection of past penalties incurred under state water pollution law.

“The agency issues mining permits based on faulty assumptions,” Cordell said. “Then they routinely fail to document the resulting environmental damage.”

Kanawha Forest Coalition members have regularly cited a lack of agency documentation of environmental issues near Kanawha State Forest in violation notices and inspection reports.

Coalition members are most concerned with two possibilities given what Cordell views as Keystone owner Tom Scholl’s record of “noncompliance and shoddy work and taking shortcuts.”

One is state environmental regulators reinstating Revelation’s revoked permits for reclamation to Keystone Industries. To the coalition, the even worse possibility is the department allowing coal mining to resume on the permits.

The three permits under consideration for reinstatement are for the Rush Creek No. 1 and No. 2 and Keystone Development No. 1 mines.

Neither Scholl nor Revelation officials responded to requests for comment.

Asked whether the DEP would factor Keystone’s history of environmental violations into its reinstatement decision, acting spokesman Terry Fletcher said the agency will evaluate “in accordance with all applicable regulations and statutes.”

From Revelation to reclamation

Surety bonds secured to cover reclamation costs for the three permit sites up for reinstatement total more than $3.9 million, Fletcher said Tuesday.

In a letter dated a day earlier, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement told DEP Secretary Harold Ward the state has failed to take sufficient steps to ensure complete and accurate estimations of all outstanding reclamation obligations on active permits. The office required the state to submit within 60 days an amendment to its reclamation program.

The federal office two decades ago approved a DEP program amendment — the creation of a reclamation fund advisory council and an increased special reclamation tax — after threatening a partial takeover of the state’s reclamation program over liability estimation concerns.

A report filed in June by the state Post Audit Division warned that state mine cleanup funds are nearing insolvency and the DEP has failed to comply with state and federal law in reclamation program oversight, resulting in missed opportunities to financially shore up a program that will need hundreds of millions of dollars to reclaim permit sites under federal regulations.

Liabilities for permits issued before July 2019 will total nearly $500 million over the next 20 years, according to an actuary for the Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council. The balance of special reclamation funds as of March 1 was about $190 million, less than 40% of the projected 20-year liability.

“So once Revelation went bankrupt, though, then DEP is faced with the question, how’s this ever going to get reclaimed?” said Kanawha Forest Coalition member Jim Waggy, of Kanawha City.

“If the state wants to keep it, then they’re gonna spend their money,” Scholl said during a Wednesday visit to the permit sites by the coalition, DEP officials and Keystone representatives.

A 2019 state Post Audit Division report raised concern about First Surety Corporation’s capacity to pay its surety bond obligations if operators fail to fulfill their obligations to reclaim mines, noting mining and reclamation sureties totaled $47.8 million.

Fletcher declined to estimate reclamation costs for the three sites up for reinstatement, saying costs “remain subject to a large degree of uncertainty and refinement.”

Fletcher said Keystone has performed onsite reclamation work where it now seeks to be reinstated as permittee since Revelation filed for bankruptcy in 2019.

But the DEP has documented leaking sediment ditches and landslides at Rush Creek Mine No. 1 since then, and Cordell said minimal water treatment since 2019 has done little to reclaim the area.

Revelation had signed consent orders in 2017 agreeing to total land reclamation efforts on the three permits by June 30, 2018. Tree planting was to be completed within two growing seasons, but the DEP issued violation notices to Revelation in 2019 for failing to follow approved planting and revegetation plans on all three permits.

Three years later, coalition members said, they fear high outstanding reclamation costs will push Scholl toward seeking to resume coal operations.

“What is his incentive to take on potentially millions of dollars in reclamation water treatment liabilities?” Cordell said. “We don’t know what his goals are. One of the concerns that we have is he may want to mine more coal off this complex, and this is a complex that has a track record from the very beginning of noncompliance, of water pollution, of absolute environmental destruction.”

“I want to clean it up,” Scholl said during Wednesday’s site visit.

A DEP official told Cordell during the visit that Keystone must apply separately for mining approval if the permits are reinstated.

If Scholl did apply again, the odds would be in his favor.

The DEP has denied just 1.57% of mining permit applications it has received since the start of 2016, according to Fletcher. The agency has approved 7,035 mining permit applications during that span, Fletcher said.

Feeling frustration, not protection

Following a June 2016 flood that caused widespread devastation throughout the Kanawha Valley, an unstable berm on the Rush Creek No. 2 Mine permit gave out, took down a swath of trees and deposited mud that blocked Rush Creek Road.

“When it collapsed on this road here, people couldn’t get out for a while,” recalled Doug Wood, a coalition member and former water resources regulator who retired from the DEP in 2011.

After an April 2017 Rush Creek mine complex site visit, the coalition wrote a letter to the DEP observing a significant crack in the berm.

Another failure resulted in another debris and silt dump onto Rush Creek Road in July 2018, according to a citizen complaint filed with the DEP.

In the same letter, coalition members documented discovering an outlet at the Rush Creek No. 1 Mine no longer existed after a ditch washed out for a few hundred feet. Using aerial imagery from September 2015, the coalition showed the same section of ditch had been washed out for at least a year and a half.

A Gazette-Mail review of DEP inspection reports for the mine before the April 2017 site visit revealed no agency documentation of the outlet washout.

The DEP has issued violation notices and cessation orders for the Rush Creek mines stemming directly from citizen complaints filed by coalition members and residents reporting noncompliant water pollution outlet discharges and damages to Rush Creek Road.

But the agency has declined to issue violation notices in response to complaints reporting noncompliant discharges and noise disturbance.

“[It’s] absurd that residents of the state have to do the job of the regulatory agencies for them,” Cordell says. “That’s really where we’re at.”

While still a DEP employee, Wood concluded in a June 2010 letter to the agency that an existing, permitted Keystone coal quarry discharge into Kanawha Fork was the sole source of the stream’s degraded water chemistry – six years before the waterway was added to the state’s list of impaired streams.

Three years later, Wood wrote to the DEP on behalf of the volunteer Kanawha State Forest Foundation, observing Keystone and Revelation mining operations had caused severe damage to Kanawha Fork’s ecosystem, wiping out mayfly and stonefly populations. Wood called on the agency to penalize the area’s mine operators for water quality standard violations.

“It’s particularly frustrating for me because I know what the DMR [Division of Mining and Reclamation] inspectors and the staff up above them should be doing,” Wood said.

Wood contended the DEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation underemphasizes tracking sources of pollution, starting downstream and working upstream. Wood accused the division of having a “culture of off-site damage ignorance” for decades.

Cordell called the DEP a “captured agency” hemmed in from the top by industry-friendly political considerations — starting with West Virginia’s coal magnate governor and prolific environmental law violator, Jim Justice. Wood agreed.

“It is a telling thing that all this mess we’re describing to you here occurs basically a five-to-10-minute drive away from DEP headquarters,” Waggy saod.

Not home anymore

Daile Rois’s 85-year-old father-in-law decided to move three hours away to escape the mess.

“He shocked us when he did that,” said Rois, 60, who now takes care of her father-in-law with her disabled veteran wife in Dayton, Ohio. “He left his church. He left his friends.”

Rois’s father-in-law, Fred Thomas, had lived on Middlelick Branch, a byway curling off Range Road next to Kanawha Fork, since 1963.

It was a place he still embraced as home after his wife died, and Rois and her wife left Dayton to move in with him in December 2012 to take care of him upon his request.

But the three of them moved back to Dayton in 2018 from their Middlelick Branch abode 2,000 feet away from the Keystone Development No. 2 Mine.

After the DEP approved the mine’s permit in 2014, the family harbored constant concern over their water quality, decreased property value and increased flooding.

Rois said she couldn’t trust the DEP, which she said she had to push hard to conduct water quality testing and check for violations.

“Everything gets put on the citizenry to prove, to document, to advocate,” Rois said. “Most people won’t do it. Most people are either afraid of the coal company or know that it winds up being nearly a full-time job.”

Rois credited the Kanawha Forest and the Ohio Valley Environmental coalitions for giving her the information she needed to be an environmental advocate for her family, prompting her to volunteer with conservationist groups. She tried to reassure her father-in-law, but she gleaned a lesson from her only six years living in West Virginia that still distresses her.

“That was probably the most heartbreaking thing for me, was discovering there was no one that stood for the citizens,” Rois remembered.

Bracing for a familiar future

Back in Barney Frazier’s home, Kanawha Forest Coalition members said they are out of appealing options for the three permits up for reinstatement – either the DEP manages onsite reclamation or Keystone takes over.

“At least with the DEP, they have a clear obligation to reclaim the site and not to do more damage by attempting to mine it more, and we can hold them accountable if they fail to meet those obligations,” Cordell said. “We can bring lawsuits against the DEP to compel them to treat the water, to complete the reclamation.”

Frazier said he wants more to show for the legwork he began 17 years ago.

With Frazier’s eyebrows lowered in concentration at his table as he jots down notes, the adjectives he used when recalling his reaction to last month’s fateful legal ad, shocked, dumbfounded, overwhelmed — no longer apply.

But they crept back when Frazier acknowledged his fear that more water quality violations than reclamation will occur if the DEP approves any reinstatement for Keystone.

“I don’t want to have to deal with this again,” he sighed.