Acid mine drainage and extreme erosion caused by industrialization and climate change are polluting water sources that lead to the Hocking River.
Due to climate change, weather patterns are now less predictable than they have ever been before, Jen Bowman, director of environmental programs at the Voinovich School, said.
This causes unpredictable, heavy rainfalls, which causes heavy erosion that can ultimately carry harmful materials into nearby water sources.
“The unpredictability of climate change and what it means to our streams and our treatment system could be affected by these more frequent and heavy duration of rainfall, and can lead to changes in our water quality,” Bowman said.
In Appalachia and beyond, these torrential rainfalls can lead to further pollutants ending up in bodies of water.
One of these pollutants is runoff from acid mine drainage, a result of the coal mining industry in rural Appalachia in the 1900s. Acidic runoff is the result of a chemical reaction between oxygen and sulfate compounds. When water flows through a mine or a pile of mine waste, it reacts with the rock, creating a high-acidity solution with a high concentration of heavy metals.
Acid mine drainage lowers the pH of streams it affects and disrupts the biological ecosystems, sometimes to the point of wiping out all life in it. Streams polluted with heavy metals often turn orange in color.
Raccoon Creek, a 114 mile long tributary of the hocking river that discharges into the Ohio River, is one of the streams that are affected by acid mine drainage.
In an effort to reverse the damage of the pollution from acid mine drainage, Ohio University has partnered with The Raccoon Creek Partnership to remediate the streams.
The Raccoon Creek Partnership, formed in 2007, is a nonprofit organization with a mission to work towards conservation, stewardship, and restoration of the Raccoon Creek watershed for a healthier stream and community.
Over the past 20 years, the Raccoon Creek Partnership has spent over $15 million on restoration of 20 different projects, Bowman said. Over that time, they have restored over 80 miles of stream to now meet the water quality standards that are needed to sustain biological communities.
“Because the Raccoon Creek watershed is fairly close to Athens, many OU students have conducted research in Raccoon Creek,” Amy Mackey, coordinator of the Raccoon Creek Watershed Program, said in an email.
OU students can help with the monitoring and outreach events in Raccoon Creek as volunteers or for internship credit.
Natalie Kruse-Daniels, an associate professor of environmental studies, noted that climate change is a result of industrialization. She said, particularly in the case of Racoon Creek, the legacy of coal mining is what caused the heavily polluted waterways and an enormous environmental liability.
She also said the location of the acid mine drainage is often times unpredictable, and that can cause issues with the current systems in place to treat the water.
“We do see places (on the river) where we have a really high flow of rain and you get discharges from mines in new places, and that can be really problematic because its not necessarily where we’re treating the water,” Daniels said.
There are a lot of extractive resources processes that have occurred in rural Appalachia, ranging from coal mining to hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” Bowman said.
Bowman said that those processes often leave our natural resources degraded and cleaning up the extractive resource is not thought about at the time that the resource is taken. As a result, that legacy of polluted water is now something that the state and taxpayers are paying for.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that there are costs when we cut down forests, mine coal, use our gas, and of course we do need those resources, but we also need to be handing the extractive resource in a better manner that doesn’t leave pollution for future generations,” Bowman said.