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Acid Mine Drainage: The Cost of Success

In 1992 the North Branch of the Potomac had no fish, and macroinvertebrates were difficult to find.

Acid Mine Drainage: The Cost of Success
In 1992 the North Branch of the Potomac had no fish, and macroinvertebrates were difficult to find.

The effort to achieve something great is always an enormous task. The effort to maintain that level of accomplishment, however, is often an even greater challenge.

So it is in the long struggle to abate acid mine drainage (AMD) in the Appalachian Mountain region of the northeastern United States. Thanks to the dedication of an enlightened age of citizen volunteers, qualified state and federal professionals, and previously available funding, great strides have been made to resurrect devastated fisheries and bring economic vitality to watersheds and communities that were just about written off throughout states such as Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.

No greater example of this historic turnaround and struggle to maintain it is the North Branch of the Potomac River in Maryland and West Virginia. Today the North Branch is a thriving and improving destination fishery. Prior to 1992, however, the river was desecrated from AMD due to decades of unregulated mining activities.

Beginning in the mid-1990s the implementation of eight limestone dosers strategically placed throughout tributaries of the North Branch has buffered the impacts of pollution. The dosers provide what is referred to as "active treatment" by adding alkaline material directly to the water. As the material mixes with the water the pH rises, causing the metals in the water to drop out quickly rather than smothering the stream bottom for many miles downstream.

Acid Mine Drainage: The Cost of Success

The improving water quality in the intervening years allowed fisheries managers to repopulate the trout in the North Branch. In 2009, 70,000 rainbow and 11,500 brown trout were planted in the North Branch to go along with a now naturally reproducing number of trout as well as warmwater species such as smallmouth bass in the lower reaches.

Alan Klotz of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources explains, "Before the dosers, we could find no fish and the river was so embedded with metals we could not even get a kick sample of macros. However, in 2010 we started to see young-of-the-year rainbow trout in these same sections. It is a Godsend to have those dosers."

The North Branch is now a catalyst for recreational activity and economic stimulus in a location where both are sparse. However, in order to maintain this momentum in the face of shrinking funding sources, a quantification of just what type of economic engine this watershed is creating was needed in order to justify the $321,000 annual bill to operate the dosers. Leaders in western Maryland, such as Trout Unlimited member and State Water Quality Advisory Committee member Neil Jacobs knew what had been gained in the past could be lost in the future.

The funding for the dosers now comes from the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) and is administered by the federal Office of Surface Mining. The money comes from current extractive industries to pay for the cleanup of past mining practices by long gone companies that never paid the cost of reclaiming the land and water they impacted.

Acid Mine Drainage: The Cost of Success
After alkaline dosers raised North Branch pH levels to offset the effects of acid mine drainage, the river became an important destination fishery in the East.

The good news is that SMCRA was on the verge of sunsetting a few years ago, but was extended thanks to a tremendous multi-state effort of conservationists who swung the political pendulum just before the legislation was to be lost. The bad news is that SMCRA is only extended to 2022 and states receive funding from SMCRA based on historic coal production. States such as Maryland that do not have the large amounts of coal deposits and tonnage of past mining have an uncertain future of allocations well prior to the 2022 expiration date.

Jacobs knows that "We need to be prepared to sustain long-term funding for the dosers outside of SMCRA, either from the state or other innovative sources. The only way to do that is to demonstrate the economic values of AMD abatement."

Thanks to activists such as Jacobs and others, the Acid Mine Drainage Subcommittee of the Maryland State Water Quality Advisory Committee developed a project concept and secured funding that created the "Benefits of Acid Mine Drainage Remediation of the North Branch of the Potomac River" report that was completed in 2010.

The report was prepared by Downstream Strategies of Morgantown, West Virginia and is available at


The firm previously produced a highly acclaimed similar document on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania in cooperation with Trout Unlimited.

Evan Hansen of Downstream Strategies says, "It is just striking how the number ended up in regard to local and state economic benefits." Through his team's exhaustive efforts it has been confirmed that anglers and boaters contribute $3 million annually to the economies of Garrett and Allegheny counties in western Maryland. This includes $2.1 million in direct spending that creates 40 jobs in the region. The surveys conducted during the study also confirm that anglers and boaters already receive a higher value from the recreational experience than they pay for, and they are willing to pay an additional $4.1 million a year to continue to have these experiences.

Acid Mine Drainage: The Cost of Success
The North Branch attracts fly fishers from many Eastern states, but without funding for alkaline treatments, the trout would disappear. The $321,000 investment brings $3 million in revenue to Allegheny and Garrett counties annually.

To be fair, the impact of this recovering watershed must be examined in the overall context of the regional economy. The total economic impact of business and industry in Allegheny and Garrett counties in 2008 was $3.03 billion. However, the contribution of the North Branch of $3 million comes at a small yearly investment of only $321,000, making this return on investment the envy of any Wall Street investor.

Of course angling as well as boating businesses and outfitters best demonstrate how the economic engine works. There are eight angling outfitters that currently serve the North Branch. Most of their clients come from Maryland or other Mid-Atlantic states residents. The outfitters take advantage of the North Branch's excellent year-round trout fishery that thrives from coldwater releases from Jennings Randolph Reservoir.

Also, because it has the characteristics of a Western river in both size and feel, it is even a more desirable destination to anglers in the East as disposable income for trips to more distant locations is reduced. A survey respondent in the Downstream report indicated that he spends $2,000 a year at just one of the North Branch's outfitters shop in Maryland. The average expenditure is $400 a trip to the North Branch when all the respondents to the survey were included in the calculations.

In addition to angling, five whitewater outfitters also guide on the North Branch. Their economic impact is limited because of the lack of scheduled whitewater releases from Jennings Randolph Lake. Despite this obstackle, on one August day in 2010 over 600 boaters and floaters were counted at the access at Barnum, West Virginia.

Harold Harsh, owner of Spring Creek Outfitters in Oakland, Maryland has guided the North Branch since its turnaround in the early 1990s. Harsh has seen the river rebound before his eyes and knows that "Fish rise all year. But the North Branch is also a great big-fly water for larger more aggressive trout in what amounts to over 30 miles of river that ends in a great warmwater fishery as well."

However, to maintain this revitalized fishery and its positive current and future economic impacts, ongoing investments of cash are going to be required. Connie Louchs, Environmental Program Manager for Maryland's Department of the Environment explains, "As long as we get the SMCRA funding we are all right to 2022.

However, given the fluctuation in the funding, and the cutbacks occurring everywhere else, there are no assurances in today's world. I hope that the information in the Downstream report is the information needed to be used to enable the funding to be secured from sources other than the federal government."

Louchs also cautioned that there is perhaps a larger looming problem than funding. "Because of recent legal issues there is the haunting potential that the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act (CWA) might sometime mandate National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits for AMD treatment facilities," she said. "Not just for active, but passive wetland and other treatment facilities that resurrect hundreds of miles of water and fisheries in the Appalachians. These treatment facilities simply cannot meet most industrial waste standards that would be required under the NPDES." Those who are following this issue believe the only solution that will save the revitalized fisheries may be the creation of a special general permit, since the federal Good Samaritan Act does not cover activities under the CWA.

No one can predict the future, especially when it comes to funding or even regulation. With that in mind Neil Jacobs responds, "We all would be much more comfortable if the state of Maryland announced a long-term funding commitment. This could be accomplished in many innovative ways such as from increased user fees since the users have already indicated they are willing to contribute more. The most important component in all of this is the economic justification as opposed to only the conservation justification. Now we can bring in the economic issue just like the developers do."

Or in more direct terms, as Harold Harsh points out, "On a good day at Barnum, West Virginia, along the North Branch just look at all the license plates. They are from all over the place. This river has the potential to be world-class. How do you just throw all that away?"

Len Lichvar is the district manager of the Somerset Conservation District, a commissioner for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and works with many volunteer conservation organizations. He lives in Boswell, Pennsylvania.

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