Today, there are few working mines left in southeastern Ohio, but the region still bears the scar from years of extraction. Thousands of mines were opened and closed before there were any environmental protections on the books. They left their mark in the soil and in the streams.
That mark can be difficult, if not impossible, to remove. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources partnered with local environmental groups, scientists, engineers and AmeriCorps volunteers to monitor 183 miles of streams, 47 miles of which they have successfully restored. The project took decades and cost more than $30 million, demonstrating the challenges of cleaning up after coal.
“It’s really hard, difficult, in some cases impossible to ever restore those streams,” said Natalie Kruse, an associate professor of environmental studies at Ohio University, who was involved in the restoration effort. “We can’t just damage streams through mining and expect it to go back to the way it was.”
Coal generates pollution at every stage of its life. Burning coal fuels asthma, bronchitis and global climate change. Mining operations contaminate water supplies in surrounding areas.
Iron from coal deposits has colored streams orange. Sulfur has turned water more acidic, impairing its ability to support life. “When the chemistry is that bad, there’s literally no fish life,” said Marissa Lautzenheiser, a watershed coordinator at Rural Action, a nonprofit involved with the stream restoration project.
“We’re struggling at reclaiming the ecosystems,” said Lautzenheiser. “Once the industry left, a lot of people didn’t even realize the area once had a lot of coal mining. It’s hard to explain to people. Most people don’t know why the water is orange.”
That can make it difficult to build the political will to tackle restoration. Money is also a challenge. Much of it comes from a tax on coal production, which is declining in Ohio, leaving fewer resources available for reclamation.
Groups must compete for funding from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior. Agencies tend to allocate funds to organizations that promise community involvement in the cleanup effort.
Even when environmental organizations are able to secure funding, the real work only just begins. Restoration demands engineers, hydrologists and biologists work together to map the flow of water and understand the delicate relationships between the fish, insects and microbes that populate the ecosystem.
To restore streams, workers in southeastern Ohio created wetlands that filter water from mining sites as it flows to streams. They lined small ponds with limestone, which makes water less acidic, counteracting sulfur pollution. When workers come across coal mining refuse — or “gob,” as it’s known — they cover it with clay to prevent it from seeping into the water.
Given the challenges of repairing the streams, the restoration project in southeastern Ohio is a herculean achievement. In 1997, there was only one species of fish in a contaminated part of Huff Run, a stream in eastern Ohio. Now, there are some two dozen species at the same spot. Kruse said farmers have been amazed to see fish in the stream again — sunfish, bass, bluegill, channel catfish and sauger — that have traveled from adjacent waterways, and whose arrival heralds a new beginning for the ecosystem.
“In the 8o’s, people said we’d never recover them, but they have fish and bugs in there, and they meet the state standards for aquatic biology,” said Kruse, noting that people have since returned to fish, kayak and canoe along the creek.
The work to restore just 47 miles of streams highlights the need for environmental protections that keep pollution out of waterways to begin with. But rather than place more stringent limits on pollution from mining operations, the administration is working to roll back existing environmental safeguards. Last month, President Trump overturned the Stream Protection Rule, a measure passed in the waning months of the Obama administration that would limit pollution from surface mining operations, protecting some 6,000 miles of streams over the next two decades.
In addition to axing key environmental protections, Trump is also taking aim at restoration efforts. He has proposed a 31 percent cut to the EPA budget, which could gut funding for toxic waste cleanup, among other programs. The move would hamper efforts to revive streams, like those in Ohio, that have been contaminated by coal pollution.
“Everyone benefited from the energy that came out of these hills,”said Lautzenheiser, referring to the decades of mining in southeastern Ohio, “so we need a collective effort and investment to right the negative aspects that came along with it.”
“We see the legacy of what irresponsible extraction has left us with,” she added. “I hope we can use the history to inform our future.”