Once There Was Acid Now There Are Trout

October 16, 1994|By GLENN P. TOLBERT

For decades, the pollution poured into the headwaters of the Potomac, killing the water life and turning acre after acre of once-pristine Western Maryland countryside into a dead zone.

The problem results from turn-of-the-century coal mining operations that ruptured an aquifer. As a result, each day about 1.5 million gallons of polluted ground water flow up through two man-made shafts into the waters of the Potomac.

Tony Abar of Maryland's Mining Program says the pollution flows out of an air shaft and a bore hole from an old coal mine.

The water coming out of the holes is filled with iron, aluminum and acid -- a combination that upsets the Ph balance in the water and leaves an eerie orange taint in the soil.

Today, the holes serve as reminders of a bygone era when when unregulated industry paid little or no concern to the environment. This mentality turned the North Branch of the Potomac into one of the top 10 most polluted watercourses in the United States.

But while nobody has figured out a way to stop the pollution, Swedish technology is being used to provide a stopgap solution to the problem.

Dr. Robert Bachman, director of fish heritage and wildlife for Maryland's Department of Natural Resources, was one of the early supporters of what many call "the Rolaids fix" being used to reclaim the headwaters of the Potomac.

The system is based on carefully measured application of lime to correct the acidity in the water. Like an antacid tablet patients take for stomach pains, the system is admittedly designed to treat the symptoms without curing the illness. But the result is stunning: 40 miles of water once written off as dead have become a first-class trout stream.

"What we're doing is giving people confidence that some of the worst environmental mistakes can be addressed," says Dr. Bachman. "But it takes a whole shift in paradigm. While the two bore holes can't be stopped from gushing, downstream we're doing something that was written off as technologically impossible as late as the 1970s."

Swedish scientists devised the "Rolaids fix" to reclaim waters that were hit hard by acid rain. Until its application in Maryland waters, it had never been used to reclaim waters that had been polluted by coal mining operations, according to state environmental officials.

Four dosers -- large devices that dispense lime -- have been installed at key locations in the Potomac's headwaters several miles downstream from the origin of the acidic discharge.

"We are thrilled with the result," says Ken Pavol, area fisheries manager for DNR. "I went snorkeling in some of the water treated by the dosers and not only saw the trout which we put there but also saw a whole food chain. There are insects grazing on underwater plant growth on rocks that were once sterile. Fish feed on these insects. I also saw bass that we didn't put there. Bass are at the top of the predator chain. They eat crayfish and other fish. I came out of that water amazed by all the life in those once-dead waters."

The return of a trout fishery to some of this state's most polluted waters is more than good news to fish and fishermen. There's another economic bonus at work that the area is eager to reel in.

A new fly fishing shop has opened in Oakland that includes guided fishing trips on horseback to a revitalized part of the river.

"People tell me they feel like they're in Montana when we head through Potomac-Garrett State Forest to the North Branch. They feel even better when we catch 20 to 30 trout a day in that beautiful stretch of water which was dead for almost 100 years," says Harold Harsh, a fishing guide.

And even more fundamental economic forces are at work, since land values and not just aesthetics are helping to drive the cleanup.

"Property is worth a lot more when it's on a beautiful stream that can support trout," says Dr. Bachman. "Then there's the matter of how the water quality up here ultimately affects the Chesapeake Bay. Trout in these streams is an indicator that the water quality is back where it should be, and that helps the recovery process of the bay."

State agencies such as the DNR aren't working alone in turning once-deadly streams into havens for trout.

The coal industry itself is working on cleaning up its image. For example, one Maryland company is raising trout in treated coal mine water.

Mettiki Coal Company of Red House recently unveiled a project that Dr. Torrey Brown, secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says "will be noticed by the world."

Mettiki's efforts are already paying off for the coal industry's image. A recent opening ceremony at the company's hatchery was attended by numerous representatives of the press.

The Mettiki project is a joint effort between the DNR, which supplies the fingerling trout, and the company, which supplies the hatchery site and 10 million gallons of treated mine drainage.

"We'll be stocking all sizes of trout throughout Western Maryland once this operation is in full swing," says Mike Ashby, environmental coordinator for Mettiki. "The goal is to rear 100,000 trout per year by 1996."

"The North Branch of the Potomac has many of the characteristics of the great fishing rivers in Montana," says Gary Yoder, the DNR's western liaison. "It's always been good habitat for trout with its deep pools and ripples. Now that we've found a way for it to support trout again, it's not an exaggeration to say that it could become one of the premier fly-fishing rivers on the East Coast. I am finding it more and more difficult every year to find reasons to go to Montana. That's how good things are getting around here."

Glenn Tolbert is a writer and film producer who who lives in McHenry.

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