Chatham Views

Natural Resources Leadership course

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Muddy Creek, part of the Cheat River watershed

Pittsburgh is a city of three rivers, in a county of 263 abandoned mine sites. If you appreciate water as a recreational resource, this is cause for celebration. If you’re savvy about pollution, it’s cause for concern.

This spring, Chatham launched a Maymester course designed to heighten both of these responses and show students ways to act on them. Natural Resource Leadership was taught by the Falk School of Sustainability‘s Michael Finewood and Sean McGreevey, Assistant Dean for Career Development. The course focused on acid mine drainage, with a side of whitewater kayaking on the Cheat River.

Acid mind drainage
An abandoned coalmine eventually fills up with groundwater. This water absorbs minerals from the coal that makes it very harmful to fish and wildlife. When it escapes the mine—and it does—it’s known as acid mine drainage or abandoned mine drainage (AMD).

After two centuries of mining in Southwestern PA and West Virginia, we sit on billions of gallons of this acidic water. The main pollutant of surface water in the Mid-Atlantic region, AMD is an enormous environmental challenge.

The process of treating AMD to make it safe is called remediation. Remediation may be active (e.g., chemical) or passive (constructed wetlands, which use natural functions of vegetation, soil, and organisms to clean the water). Both passive and active remediation are used at the Cheat River watershed.

Cheat River
The Cheat lies about two hours south of Pittsburgh, in West Virginia. In 1994, AMD buildup blew out the side of the mountain, turning the river orange for miles, killing fish as far away as 16 miles downstream.*  In response, an organization called Friends of the Cheat was formed, and has implemented fifteen remediation sites in the area.

Natural Resources Leadership (SUS 407/507)
The course met for three hours per day, four days per week, for three weeks. Here’s what happened.

Week 1:
Each day, class included lecture and discussion about leadership, water challenges including acid mine drainage, and contemporary water policy. Because whitewater kayaking is significantly more challenging than kayaking on still water, classroom time was followed by whitewater kayaking training in the pool at Chatham’s Athletic Fitness Center.

Week 2:
Students practiced their whitewater kayaking skills on Pine Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny, and spent time at two local remediation sites:

  1. Wingfield Pines in Upper St. Clair is a local park designed to filter metals out of water by circulating the drainage (which is fluorescent orange to start) through a series of ponds and into a wetland, where native plants remove the last of the sediment before the (now extremely clean) water flows into the Allegheny River. It’s a nice habitat for ducks, and for dog-walkers.
  1. The group also visited Emerald View Park, an urban park-in-progress in Mt. Washington. Emerald View is being created partly to restore the hillside after 150 years of mining, settling, vacating, and serving as a dumping ground. It’s in the early stages of becoming a site for AMD remediation, which means constant monitoring of water quality. “They need to monitor for about 1 1/2 years before they can develop the appropriate mediation techniques,” says Dr. Finewood.

Week 3:
Equipped with kayaks, sleeping bags, and a newfound understanding of water resource challenges, the group then headed to the Cheat. They met with members of Friends of the Cheat, with whom they spent mornings doing volunteer manual labor, including planting grass, rebuilding a dam, and rolling about 25 tires up a hill and out of the canyon. They also discussed acid mine drainage.

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In the afternoons, the group set societal concerns aside in favor of whitewater kayaking. The Cheat is known for tremendous kayaking, with beautiful scenery and interesting challenges for all levels. And even though each person is in his or her own boat, kayaking is very much a group experience, and requires significant skills in communication and envisioning.

One major goal of the course was to investigate how small non-profit community organizations can affect significant environmental issues. In the future, it may address issues other than water, such as ecosystems, biodiversity, and air quality. Course participants included Master of Sustainability students Josh Zivkovich, Ezra Welsh, and Kurt Lindsey, and undergraduate Chatham seniors Jennae Rekken, Erin Smith, and Nicole Werwie.

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 *Video and commentary about the blowout by bystander Randy Robinson is available here, here, and here.