The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announced Monday afternoon that stream conditions for Muddy Creek and the Cheat River were returning to normal after a blowout at the former T&T Mine Complex in Preston County sent large amounts of highly acidic water into the confluence of the two waterways Thursday.
A Kingwood Water Works representative said while the Cheat River is a water source, the mine drainage issues happened downstream, leaving the area’s drinking water unaffected. No public water intakes are downstream of the mine blowout, according to Department of Environmental Protection Acting Communications Director Terry Fletcher.
The department had reported Friday that large amounts of highly acidic water — 10 times that of normal concentrations — and sediment was discharging from the former mine and causing acid levels in Muddy Creek and the Cheat River to spike, with a flow peaking at 6,200 gallons per minute Thursday afternoon before waning to 3,500 gallons a minute.
The blowout overwhelmed the department’s acid mine drainage treatment system, known as the T&T Treatment Facility, causing a pipeline entering a manhole to rupture, the department noted, adding that an estimated 300 to 500 gallons per minute was not going into the treatment facility.
As of Monday morning, the pH of Muddy Creek was within preferred water quality limits and flows coming from the T&T Mine had returned to normal, the department announced that afternoon. Widely used in chemistry and biology, pH is a measure of the acidity or basicity of water or other aqueous solutions and is a critical indicator of water quality.
Thursday’s blowout was unsettling for Friends of the Cheat, a nonprofit group formed in 1994 to restore a watershed degraded by decades of acid mine drainage pollution.
Madison Ball, Friends of the Cheat restoration program manager, said there was no detection of a fish kill in the main stem of the Cheat River per the state Division of Natural Resources. Ball noted a likely loss of fish in Muddy Creek based on low pH levels there, and impact in both waterways, though mainly in Muddy Creek, on stream bugs that comprise the base of the food web in streams, mainly in Muddy Creek but partially in the Cheat River, as well.
“We probably won’t see the full effect for some time, at least in the main stem of the Cheat, because there’s probably a slight decrease of food availability because of the bugs and how that relates to the fishery,” Ball said.
The DEP’s maintenance contractor determined the sudden increase of acidic water flow resulted in damage to the conveyance pipe carrying acid mine drainage to the T&T Treatment Facility.
Repairs began Monday and will continue until Tuesday if needed, Fletcher said. The DEP said it is working with the West Virginia University Water Research Institute, private sector experts and other state agencies to identify the cause of Thursday’s blowout and guard against future incidents.
The $8.35 million T&T Treatment Facility went into full operation in March 2018. Ball said the facility resulted in the return of fish to the waters affected by Thursday’s blowout, citing a 2019 DEP collection of more than 150 fish near the mouth of Muddy Creek. Pre-treatment fish surveys had turned up no fish at all.
“That was an immense feat for many people, and I guess part of what’s so disheartening about this recent blowout is knowing that we might not be starting back at square one, but we’re starting back from a lower spot in terms of overall ecosystem health there,” Ball said.
The initial blowouts at the former T&T Mine happened in 1994 and 1995, but similar high-flow incidents happened there in January 2003 and March 2015.
The DEP said it has not been able to determine a cause for the incidents, but noted the possibilities of stagnant pools of water within the mine getting flushed out due to heavy rainfalls and periodic roof collapses within the mine displacing large volumes of water at one time, a theory the department can’t confirm because it can’t enter the mine.
What concerns Friends of the Cheat is the knowledge that heavier rains are sure to test the DEP’s acid mine drainage treatment system in the future, especially as precipitation amounts escalate amid climate change.
“Our hope is that the problem can be identified and a plan can be put in place to how to best handle this if it were to happen again, maybe think about if there’s any potential to do an improvement to the site to handle this volume of a water,” Ball said. “It’s kind of a big-picture question if we’re seeing this as a trend, how is this plant going to be able to adapt to handle those events and how can we make sure this doesn’t occur with any sort of regularity?”