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Treating Acid Mine Drainage in the Buckhannon River

First published in the 2023 Buckhannon River Watershed Association Newsletter.

What is AMD?

Acid mine drainage (AMD) forms when pyrite-rich geology is exposed to surface water, often during mining operations. Pyrite is commonly known as Fool’s Gold. The water and pyrite react to form sulfuric acid and release iron. The resultant acidic conditions leach heavy metals and lower the pH of the receiving body of water. Abandoned mines have the ability to continue producing AMD for thousands of years after mining operations have ceased. Within West Virginia, there are roughly 400 miles of freshwater trout streams that are impaired due to acidity, the majority emanating from acid mine drainage. 

AMD is often identified by its bright orange/yellow hue, which some fondly call a ‘Yellow Boy’. The distinctive color occurs from iron dropping out of the water when pH is raised. This iron then coats the bottom of the creek, taking up room within the substrate that aquatic insects reside within. Due to the iron coating of the streams and the acidity of the water, the creek is unable to support much of the native aquatic life. This puts AMD-impacted streams at risk for colonization by invasive species. 

Image 1: Photo of acid mine drainage ‘yellow boy’ within the Buckhannon River Watershed.

Acid mine drainage passes through forest growth.

Image 2: Caddisfly larva found at Swamp Run before entering the Buckhannon River. This species is pollution intolerant, so finding one indicates improvement in the water quality! 

Caddisfly larva in the palm of a technician's hand.

Who is WVWRI?

The West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI) was formed under the federal Clean Water Act. Since 1967, WVWRI has been serving the people of the mountain state by developing solutions for environmental and economic issues and disseminating results to the public and government. WVWRI is divided into four distinct programs: Brownfields, Critical Materials, Energy, and Water to best address the needs of the state. WVWRI’s primary focus is acid mine drainage remediation, with current research looking into the extraction of rare earth elements during the treatment process. WVWRI works closely with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and local watershed groups to aid in the sampling, development, and monitoring of AMD treatment systems.

Image 3: WVWRI sampling crew at the Buckhannon River (Left to right: Rachel Spirnak, Eliza Siefert, Melissa Shafer). 

Three field technicians stand on the bank of the Buckhannon River.

How do we work together?

Historic data of Swamp Run shows an extensive history of mining in the area, with the stream impaired for iron and pH in the 2003 Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) allocations. Since 2006, WVWRI, Buckhannon River Watershed Association (BRWA), and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) have worked in collaboration on the implementation of five treatment projects that address mine drainage within the watershed Buckhannon River Watershed. These five treatment sites are highlighted in the map below. 

Image 5: Map of the Buckhannon River Watershed, showcasing the five treatment sites implemented by WVWRI and BRWA. 

Watershed map of the Buckhannon River. This river flows north.

At Swamp Run (SR1 and SR2 on the map) there are two treatment systems that WVWRI, BRWA, and WVDEP helped to install and monitor. Both sites were net acidic pretreatment and were contributing significant iron loadings to the Buckhannon River.

The Swamp Run 1 treatment system combines several AMD seeps and channels them to limestone flushing beds, settling ponds, and a small wetland. The limestone within this system helps to raise the pH, which in turn allows metals to drop out prior to entering Swamp Run. The settling pond and wetlands help to slow the water movement down and help remove any remaining metals. This treatment system was established in 2016 and current data demonstrates the effective removal of iron and acidity through the system.

Image 6: Photo of a settling pond at Swamp Run 1 before entering the wetland. The milky color is due to the aluminum settling from the water. 

Pipe discharging water into a milky blue pond, lined with limestone.

Swamp Run 2 has two main seeps – North and South. The current treatment system focuses on treating the south seep, which is shown to be more detrimental from water quality monitoring. Construction for the original treatment system was completed in 2020 and funding to improve the North seep treatment was awarded in 2022. The current treatment includes limestone terracing, limestone flushing beds, and settling ponds to raise the pH and remove metals from the water before entering Swamp Run.

Image 7: Photo of limestone terracing treating the Swamp Run 2 South seep. Notice how the iron has coated the limestone. 

Limestone terracing with iron hydroxide coating the rocks.

Prior to treatment, Swamp Run was adding roughly 84,000 pounds of acid per year into the Buckhannon River. Post-treatment data shows that these loadings are close to zero at the mouth of Swamp Run, indicating significant improvement within the creek. The above treatment systems, and subsequent improvements to water quality, would have not been possible without the collaboration between WVWRI, WVDEP, and BRWA. WVWRI looks forward to working with the two groups more to improve existing treatment and treat additional sources within the Buckhannon River Watershed. 

To read more articles about the Buckhannon River and the work the Buckhannon River Watershed Association is involved in, check out their 2023 Newsletter