On a recent afternoon, near the headwaters of Deckers Creek, in West Virginia, Paul Ziemkiewicz, the biological scientist who directs the Water Research Institute at West Virginia University, squatted by a blood-red trickle seeping from a hillside. The color, he pointed out, was the telltale sign of water contaminated by a form of coal waste called acid mine drainage, which poisons aquatic life. For decades, this contaminated water has devastated Appalachia, killing many of the creeks and rivers that lie between Kentucky and southwestern Pennsylvania. “I’ve spent thirty-two years making this waste go away,” Ziemkiewicz told me. He had come to meet Brian Hurley, the executive director of Friends of Deckers Creek, a local watershed group that had been working to clean up the waste. Hurley had shaggy hair, and wore rubber boots and sunglasses propped on the brim of his baseball cap. In another era, he might’ve found work in a local coal mine, or a steel mill, but those industries were mostly gone. There are, however, increasing opportunities in cleaning up the mess left behind. Part of Hurley’s job is to monitor the water-treatment systems for the creek, some of which Ziemkiewicz had helped to design. “You can make a living now fixing things and making them better,” Hurley said.
Ziemkiewicz, who is lean and studious-looking, explained that acid mine drainage forms when air and water come into contact with the exposed and pyrite-rich rock on the surfaces of mines, starting a chemical reaction that releases sulfuric acid, which then flows into creeks. Ziemkiewicz directed Hurley to open the metal door of the treatment system, which looked like a miniature grain silo built over the seep. Inside, a waterwheel dropped chalky white lime dust into the vermillion stream below. “It’s a glorified eggbeater,” Hurley said. The lime, a base, neutralizes the acid in the contaminated water. The water then flows from the silo into a large holding pond, where heavier metals and other elements drop out, forming a rainbow sludge. The puddles of sludge take on vivid hues: glacial blue indicates the presence of aluminum; terra-cotta red means iron. The treated water then flows from the pond, down the bank, into the creek.