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About ILGARD / News Southeast Ohio Magazine
Spring 1997

Curing the Monday Creek Blues

Communities Come Together to Clear the Waters

Story by Lowell Kempf
Photos by Sarah Wigdalski

"That could be clean water," says Marsha Wickle of the U.S.Forest Service. "There's no reason for this, no sense in it all." She looks down at a stream of water bubbling into a hole in the ground. The hole sucks the water into the abandoned coal mines lining the hills of Majestic Mine in Athens County.

Orange foam forms around a drainage pipe that has to be regulary replaced because the water dissolves it.

The water coughs from a grate covering the mine’s entrance, the last stretch of Monday Creek before it reaches the Hocking River. "We had an engineer out here last spring," Wickle says. "He was a tall, skinny guy. He stepped into that and he was up to his knees in an instant. It’s pretty deep."

Monday Creek’s problems may be deep, but Wickle is just one of many people willing to wade in and make a difference.

Concerned citizens have joined to make Monday Creek healthy again. They yearn to overcome a century of problems. Grassroot organizations have joined with federal agencies to fufill this mission. Yet, cleaning Monday Creek will be a formidable task.

Further back in the woods, a clean stream pours into a hole in the clay. Through the hole, the water joins with Monday Creek in the Majestic Mine, becoming part of the pollution that flows from the mine entrance. Around the hole, huge earth mounds form a 10-foot ditch into which the stream to flow.

"That’s caused by subsidence," Wickle explains. "Originally, we thought that we needed a chemical solution but a graduate student spent some months examining it. Turns out that this is an engineering problem." The problem, she says, can be treated far easier and cheaper than they had originally imagined.

Wickle explains how the water can be cleaned by redirecting the stream to the surface, as it used to flow. The earthworks will cost roughly $150,000 and the work will solve an obvious problem. A chemical solution would cost much more. The Majestic Mine makes up only a small portion of Monday Creek, a problem which will cost more than that to reclaim. The communities around Monday Creek prefer that price, though, to living with a polluted creek.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency annually lists Monday Creek as one of the 10 worst water problems in Ohio, the creek is not the only polluted stream in Southeast Ohio. What makes Monday Creek different is the Monday Creek Restoration Project. A group of citizens are making it the prototype for stream restoration throughout Appalachia.

Creeks have influence beyond their beds, connecting to the ground water supply and branching into tributaries. One creek affects hundreds of square miles of watersheds covering multi-county areas and requiring multi-county responsibility.

Monday Creek flows through Perry, Hocking, and Athens counties collecting contamination from mining areas along the way. Small towns in the watershed are working towards solutions. When all comunities join in the fight, it makes each problem easier to solve. Every resident who gives a little money, goes out into the creek the to collect trash, or sits on a township ecological board helps bring solutions to the problems closer.

Monday Creek inherits its problems from the area’s coal mining history. The creek, named by surveyors for the night they camped by it in the 18th century, has served settlers with water and fishing since pioneers arrived in Ohio. Evidence of Indian settlements dating back to 1000 AD. indicates people lived along the waterway for more than a thousand years. The Industrial Revolution, however, transformed the creek into a severe pollution problem.

Companies have mined the Monday Creek valley for any available natural resource, from lumber to coal. The earliest coal mines can be traced to the 1860s, long before any government restrictions existed. After World War II, coal mining methods included full scale strip mining from the surface.

The mining companies tore up the landscape and recontoured the land, redirecting and damming streams. The companies dumped the coal and dirt from the mines they couldn’t use outside the mines, which built up hillsides called gobpiles.

Water flows through old mine tunnels and soaks into gobpiles, becoming acidic and polluted. Some mines have been closed for more than a century but the sites continue to pollute Monday Creek.

"The acidity of the water ranges from a pH of four down to a low of 2.4," says Mary Stoertz of Ohio University’s geography program. She sits in her office, surrounded by photographs and maps of Monday Creek and charts of the watershed’s pollution levels. Stoertz serves as one of the project’s university liaisons and technical advisers, as well as one of its spokepersons. "Fish and most plants can’t survive a pH lower than six. It’s kind of like lemon juice. To put it in gritty words."

Stoertz continues, "You can take a can of soda pop, put it in the stream, and a week later it will be gone because it will dissolve. The water has nothing living in it except for microbes. I have a friend, Steve Warsley, who was doing a study in a tributary. He scared a fish out of the tributary into Snowfork, which is part of Monday Creek. The fish sat there for about five minutes, turned around, and swam right back, between his legs, to get back to the tributary. Fish don’t do that."

The Monday Creek Restoration Project began in 1994 when Pam Stachler, a graduate student at the time and now hydrologist for the Forest Service, led a group of teenagers in a water-quality survey of Snowfork Bend.

Although Tri-County Community Action Agency had her conduct the work to encourage teens to perform community service, these water measurements served as the catalyst for several local agencies and organizations to become involved with Monday Creek.

Stachler’s attracted the attention of Rural Action, a grassroots nonprofit organization for rural development. Mary Ann Borch, a member of Rural Action, had worked with watershed areas in Ohio before and was interested in finding a watershed needing improvement in Southeast Ohio.

She heard about federal funding plans for acid- mine cleanup and saw Monday Creek as a project that would address both goals. Late in 1994, she called a meeting of interested parties, and they founded the restoration project.

Old methods of restoring watersheds include dropping pulverized limestone and sodium hydroxide in the water, which neutralizes acid, raising the water’s pH level so it can support life.

Turquoise water flows through stained banks at the Essex Mine.

This, however, only addresses the symptoms of pollution, not the source. Acidic water continues to flow from upstream and the cleansed water travels through more gobpiles and mines. The expensive acetylene materials must be dumped into the water at a constant rate.

Researchers have been exploring longer-lasting and lower-maintenance solutions that involve biological resources, such as natural marshlands that clean water. "Oxygen is needed for the reactions to take place that contaminate the water," Stoertz says. "Marshes are low-oxygen environments."

If the water goes through enough marshland, it gets clean. The project plans to force the headwaters through a limestone drain into deep pools. The pools will help the particles floating in the water settle.

Then channels will redirect the water through marshlands. The system will be expensive, but it will clean the creek and require little maintenance. These plans require detailed knowledge of the watershed, covered by another part of the project.

In another office, Fred Calef III surrounds himself with maps far different than Stoertz’s. Part of the Institute for Local Government Administration and Rural Development, Calef maps Southeast Ohio, including Monday Creek. "It’s part of GIS, the new method of creating maps on computers," Calef says. "In the old days, maps were only place names and streets. What we’re doing is all the information, all kinds, about an area and layering it into one map.

The GIS department compiles this information for the Monday Creek Project. A normal map would just tell where the creek runs. What the department creates with GIS contains the most current information: the exact pH level of a certain part of the creek, the location of a log jam, the depth of mine tunnels. The restoration Project needs this information for their planning. Calef makes sure they have it.

Along Monday Creek, researchers gather the information Calef needs. "I think it’s disgusting to look at," says Bryan Overly, a graduate student in Ohio University’s environmental studies department. He and his friend, Jay Stotz, are taking readings on the water flowing from the Essex Mine.

Out of a pile of rocks, a small waterfall cascades, offering the overpowering smell of sulfur. The rocks and logs in the water are covered with a white film resembling old paint. A murky cloud turquoise milk floats in the water.

"We think that white stuff is an aluminum-eating bacteria," says Stotz. "They’re planning on putting a quick drop tube on this spot."

He describes a tube containing limestone gravel that the water constantly turns up. That will cut down on the aluminum building up on the limestone the way it would if the water just ran over a layer of gravel.

"The problem is that this microbe seems to thrive in fast moving water," says Stotz. "See how it’s the worse where the stream runs the fastest? I think they’ll need something else." Tests such as those Stotz is conducting reveal knowledge the restoration project needs in order to come up with viable solutions.

For the first time in decades, Monday Creek has money invested in research and cleaning the creek. Borch has received government grants. There is at least $500,000 in grant money now behind the project and more is coming. However, researchers estimate the total cost will reach more than $50 million for the entire project.

Plans for the money focus on the Rockrun Gobpile, near the headwaters of Monday Creek in the northern part of Hocking County. The gobpile, also known as Seven Chimneys, due to the local brick-making industry, sits next to beautiful streams spider-webbing the countryside.

Black peaks of coal gravel stretch upwards 80 feet. Huge gullies cut into the slopes, flooding whenever it rains. Although the streams that run through the gobpile look clear, they possess the lowest pH level in Monday Creek.

This summer, the face of the Rockrun Gobpile will change. The Monday Creek Restoration Project’s plans include covering the gobpile with soil that can support life and leveling the slopes so erosion won’t eat away the hills. Experts estimate it will cost $500,000, but the work will clean one of Monday’s Creek’s ugliest problems.

"Really, we must think we’re superhuman," says Wickle, looking at the Gobpile, "thinking we can change all this. It’s really egotistical of us. But, there are so many of us behind this who want to see this area change. A lot of us will be retiring in twenty years. We can make a difference and see it by then."

All along Monday Creek, people are coming together to make a difference. Modern techniques backed by hard work and eager hands will do their best to overcome a century of abuse within the next 30 years.

Life can return to the watershed. The Monday Creek Restoration Project intends to make this a reality. People remember their great grandfathers catching fish in Monday Creek, and they dream of their grandchildren doing the same.



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