The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Sunday Profile

May 26, 2013

‘Because We All Live Downstream’

Piney Creek Watershed Association continues to raise awareness about water quality issues, public service cleanup projects

Keeping the streams in a goodly portion of Raleigh County free of pollution and refuse is a full-time job for the Piney Creek Watershed Association.

Tasked with improving and guarding about 130 square miles of the county, the association has been around less than a decade, but already has made its presence known with myriad cleanup projects.

Within its scope are Cranberry, Whitestick and Soak creeks, besides Piney Creek, on down to where the mouth flows into the New River, says the association’s part-time executive director, Jim Fedders.

“A lot of what we do is outreach, trying to raise awareness,” Fedders explained.

Just recently, armed with a grant provided by the Beckley Area Foundation, the association went into the art classes at Liberty, Shady Spring and Woodrow Wilson high schools to teach the importance of water quality.

Students then produced artwork that was on display at The Register-Herald, touting the value of clean, healthy streams.

A June 14 event at Little Beaver State Park, the fifth annual Watershed Celebration, again is focused on youth, emphasizing the ecology.

This Wednesday, Fedders plans to give the public a demonstration on how a trained canine can sniff out sewage that has been dumped into a stream. The event is set for 5:30 p.m. at the Erma Byrd Education Center.

Environmental professionals will take part, outlining what can be done from a technical standpoint to enhance the quality of streams, Fedders explained.

Not long ago, some misinterpreted a federal judge’s ruling in Virginia on stormwater runoff, inferring from a newspaper account that this would impact fees collected. Actually, the ruling doesn’t affect the local fees, and one misconception was that the Piney Creek Watershed Association had a role in their collection.

“We have nothing to do with the collection of stormwater runoff fees,” Fedders emphasized. “We don’t collect fees. We’re just the opposite. We rely on membership dues and donations. We’re always scrounging for money.”

On occasion, the association gets some funding from the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the group also relies on corporate and other private sources for donations.

From the standpoint of ecology, Fedders sees a number of challenges within this region.

“We’ve got some barren land and every time it rains, that’s more soil flowing off the land and ending up down in our creeks,” he said.

In some locales, abandoned coal mines are spewing out acid mine drainage since the property wasn’t properly reclaimed, Fedders said.

“A good percentage of the watershed is not sewered,” he said.

“People have septic tanks, which, if functioning properly, is fine. But some of the septic tanks get old and people don’t get them pumped out and they no longer function as they should. Some of the much older residences may not even have a septic tank.”

In those instances, the disposal of human waste is via what Fedders refers to as “a straight pipe.”

“Just run a pipe out in the backyard and let it go,” he said. “No treatment at all. Out of sight, out of mind. But eventually some of that is going to end up in our streams.”

Litter poses another huge nemesis — from carelessly discarded cigarette butts to bags of garbage callously heaved off to the roadside, to tires and shopping bags.

“I’ve been in the creeks and found just unbelievable stuff,” Fedders said. “Like floor mats out of a pickup truck. I went to a high school with a bag of stuff and played a game. I pulled some things out and told them I got it out of a creek. They were kind of shocked to see some of the stuff I pulled out.”

Tossing a plastic bag of garbage on the berm of a road is another menace, given the ability of rain, wind and stray dogs and cats to rip them open. The damage isn’t confined to degrading the scenery.

“Streams are at the bottom of a hill,” Fedders said. “That stuff rolls down the hill. And once it’s in the stream, it’s not going to get out. It’s not going to blow out of the stream. It’s in there until somebody picks it up or it washes down and becomes somebody else’s problem.”

Cleaning up streams reaches beyond health concerns, Fedders said.

“Really, it comes down to economic development in some ways,” he said. “With all the rafting and outdoor activities, you want to have a clean environment for people to come and enjoy and not be afraid to step into the water.”

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com

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