In the spring of 1994, an improperly sealed underground coal mine blew out a hillside, releasing a massive slough of acid mine water into Muddy Creek. The creek is a tributary of the Cheat River just upstream of the Cheat Canyon in northeastern West Virginia. A watershed that had been a popular whitewater rafting destination turned orange for miles. Fish were killed as far as 16 miles downstream of the blowout.
In response to this incident, a group of concerned citizens founded a nonprofit watershed organization called Friends of the Cheat (FOC). FOC works to address water quality problems in the Cheat River watershed. For the past 24 years, FOC has restored and preserved the health of the watershed while promoting its use and value for recreation and education.
Solar energy plays an important role in this process.
“We don’t have a staff that goes to these sites and works day to day,” said FOC Associate Director Owen Mulkeen. “So we use [solar-powered valve systems called] Agri-Drains to control the level of water in our treatment systems and allow us to flush the system automatically. Solar panels and batteries control the timers and motors that control the gates, [which] allow the pond to flush.”
In cases of severe pollution, additional active treatment measures are sometimes required. These active water systems typically consist of 20- to 50-ton silos containing lime that is added to the water to neutralize acutely acid pH levels. But the lime tends to stick inside the walls of the storage silos.
“They call it ‘bridging,’ or ‘rat-holing.’ And it won’t move down the silo,” Mulkeen said.
The solution is to install a vibrator on the storage silo to prevent the lime from sticking to its interior walls. “We designed our own portable solar vibrator,” Mulkeen said. “It can be positioned at any one of our sites. It’s powered by a 200-amp solar panel and a 400-watt generator that powers a 12-volt vibrator. Our goal was to build it for less than a thousand dollars, make it portable, and make it so one person could use it.”
“We’ve found we need about four of these, not just one,” Mulkeen says of the vibrator. “We service 28 [active water treatment] sites in the state, and over 30 [lime] dosers. There’s plenty of places for it to be used. And we certainly see [solar] technology being used more and more in [this application], because these old mine sites don’t have power. They’re remote. So we definitely see this technology growing.”
Thanks to the efforts of Friends of the Cheat and its partners, the main stem of the Cheat River has been removed from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s list of impaired waters. Cheat River tributaries Sovern Run and Big Sandy Creek are also on the verge of removal from this list. Since 1995, Friends of the Cheat has hosted the annual Cheat River Festival to raise awareness and funds in support of the organization’s mission. This year’s Cheat Fest takes place May 4 and 5 on the banks of the Cheat River near Albright. Find out more about the Friends of the Cheat and support their work at http://www.cheat.org.