“You can’t focus on the worries of the world, when your only focus is on a trout.” — Neil Gorsuch at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on March 21, 2017
A few years ago, I was fishing on the Cheat River in West Virginia. I don’t really like to fish because I usually have bad luck and insufficient patience. I still try to approach each outing with optimism, even if I catch little more than an underwater tree branch.
My dad, on the other hand, is an avid fisherman, luckier and more patient. I usually decline his invitations, uninspired by the prospect of a lifeless line and an empty net. But that day he persuaded me with the promise of a great catch.
I stood on a large rock in the river, not worrying about the world, admiring the panoramic view and mindlessly tossing my line into the water; I didn’t expect to catch a damn thing.
Then a behemoth struck. It was a massive trout, at least a foot long, probably longer. Hit with a surge of adrenaline I yelled to my dad who, from his spot downstream, came sprinting and splashing over water-breaching rocks shouting indecipherable instructions. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the drag set properly on my pole and the line snapped. The fish was gone. I went from ecstasy to dismay in no time, as any fisherman who experiences the thrill and disappointment of “the fish that got away” understands.
We were fishing on Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, which originates in neighboring Pocahontas County, the birthplace of eight rivers. My grandparents live in Huntersville, a tiny community in Pocahontas County close to another great river of West Virginia, the Greenbrier.
The Cheat, however, has a more tangible connection to West Virginia’s troubling coal legacy. Like many waterways in coal-producing states, it has long been threatened by mine drainage that turns the water acidic. The river has suffered significantly from acid mine damage (AMD) discharged from abandoned mines and active coal mine operations.
In 1994, torrents of polluted water from an inadequately-sealed underground mine blew out a hillside and poured into Muddy Creek and then into the Cheat, turning the river orange for 16 miles on the way to Cheat Lake, killing everything in its aquatic path, and bringing greater attention to a history of AMD problems. The resulting discharge impacted not only the Cheat Canyon, but also lowered the pH in Cheat Lake to 4.5, killing fish as far away as 16 miles downstream.
In an interview after the election President Trump said, with his singular bluntness, that “clean water, crystal clean water is vitally important.” He was right. Unfortunately, he was wrong in backing Congress’s repeal of the Stream Protection Rule. Bent on resuscitating, not regulating, Big Coal, they fail to see the bigger picture.
After the deadly coal mine accidents in West Virginia my mother wrote about the pride and stoicism that defines West Virginians, especially those in the coal industry:
I worry, at least a little, when generations of West Virginians–whether they’re connected to coal mining or not–absorb this notion that they are beleaguered and put-upon, the most-derided in our culture, and then turn that woundedness into a kind of guarded bravado that refuses to reckon with some hard, uncomfortable truths. To say we’re proud of coal miners without acknowledging that for decades miners have been given the shaft–literally–by greedy coal companies does not serve the long-term well-being of those who do this dirty, dangerous work.
Now more than ever, invigorated by President Trump’s unfulfillable and irresponsible promise to revive a dying way of life, many desperately cling to this pride as the coal industry collapses, replaced by technology and outsourcing, natural gas (with its own set of environmental problems), and growth in renewable energy.
The paradox of the proud coal miners of West Virginia is that they also like to fish. I know West Virginians, (though, not any current coal miners). But, I believe most have at least a modest appreciation for their state’s beautiful waters and an awareness of the extreme environmental degradation that results from their industry, particularly the preventable poison that seeps from coal mines (or in many cases is intentionally placed) into rivers and streams, eating fish alive from the inside out, ravaging other aquatic life indiscriminately, and contaminating drinking water.
A greater principle is at play: the view that part of human thriving may require sacrificing life in order to make a living. Even vegetarians, I imagine, have to make peace with killing plants so they can live. For some, it is a given that providing for one’s family will always outweigh protecting the environment. But this dichotomy presents a false choice: there are ways for both ideals to be achieved. The collusion between the President, Congress, and the coal barons of corporate greed in nullifying the Stream Protection Rule deserves no sympathy; however the coal workers in Appalachia and elsewhere need compassion. My mother writes further:
Coal has not been good for West Virginia. Coal has been good for corporations like Massey Energy and its subsidiaries. After more than a century of extracting this valuable resource from the earth, the considerable profits it has generated have gone elsewhere. West Virginia is not known for a robust economy or a prosperous citizenry.
The crux of the issue is that these former miners need jobs—satisfying, fulfilling work, but we (the state, the country, the world) also need strong regulations to protect our rivers and streams.
The Stream Protection Rule was hardly the bane of the coal industry as Trump and Congress have led many to believe. Coal executives and anti-environment industry sycophants, insisted that the rule was killing thousands of jobs, exaggerations that stemmed from antipathy toward government regulation of any sort, rather than from reality.
The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) insisted that the worries of coal companies were (mostly) overblown. The agency agreed that the rule would make certain mining projects economically unviable and reduce annual coal employment by 124 jobs between now and 2040, thanks to lower production—not to federal regulations. (For context, the coal industry has lost 25,000 jobs since 2012, much of that due to continued automation and lower demand.)
In his testimony to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works in February 2016, Matt Wasson, Director of Programs for Appalachian Voices promoted five themes in support of the Stream Protection Rule, including the need to support economic diversification:
As the coal industry in Appalachia declines, many local people believe that economic growth depends on diversifying their economy and protecting the natural resources like clean water and wildlife that could underpin future economic development – and they believe that continuing to sacrifice their natural capital to benefit coal companies’ bottom lines is a poor long-term investment for their communities…
Reversing the Stream Protection Rule was a myopic decision. However, despite the step back, there is some promise in the rebirth of the Cheat River. The accident in 1994, followed by one in 1995, inspired environmental activists to take remedial action supported by significant state and federal funding to help revive the river. Since 2000, Cheat River restoration efforts have received more than $5.1 million in support, including $2.6 million in EPA Section 319 nonpoint source funding through the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
The Cheat is once again a haven for whitewater rafting and smallmouth bass fishing after years of Clean Water Act funding and the efforts of a local non-profit group (Friends of the Cheat) and others to control pollution from old abandoned mines. The river is no longer on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) 303(d) list of impaired waters. Today, the Cheat is host to bass fishing tournaments, a healthy perch population and even pollution-sensitive walleye. I plan to go back to it one day and catch the fish that got away.