Blackwater River Named Among America’s Most Endangered Rivers for 2024 

From our partners at West Virginia Highlands Conservancy 

By Olivia Miller, WV Highlands Conservancy Program Director


On April 16, the Blackwater River, West Virginia’s prized waterway renowned for its recreation opportunities and wildlife, joined the list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2024.  

Photo by Frank Gebhard

In its announcement, American Rivers named the potential construction of Corridor H’s southern route—often referred to as Revised Original Preferred Alternative (ROPA)—for the Parsons to Davis project as a major threat to the Blackwater River because of the potential for acid mine drainage to be created during construction and unleashed into the North Fork of the Blackwater River.  

The Blackwater River flows 34 miles through the High Allegheny Mountains of Tucker County, West Virginia, draining 142 square miles. The Blackwater River region is a popular outdoor recreational resource and destination for a growing sustainable tourism economy. The Blackwater is fed by the Canaan Valley Wildlife Refuge, Blackwater Falls State Park and Big Run Bog, a National Natural Landmark on the Monongahela National Forest. It is designated as a West Virginia Critical Resource Water for its exceptional ecological, recreational and aesthetic values. The river corridor is home to the endangered Cheat Mountain salamander, Virginia big-eared bat, northern long eared bat and Indiana bat, the rusty patched bumble bee, and the rare West Virginia northern flying squirrel, eastern brook trout, and eastern hellbender. 

The Blackwater River is a major draw for visitors to the area for fishing, hiking, biking and boating. These visitors drive the local tourism economy that supports the region. 

The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy has been working alongside community members and businesses in Tucker County to raise awareness of the many risks the southern route for Corridor H poses to the Monongahela National Forest, the Blackwater Canyon, and the communities of Thomas and Davis.  

An alternate northern route, of which we are in favor, would preserve the unique mountain culture and connectivity of the sister towns of Thomas and Davis and will not trample through the Blackwater Canyon’s intact landscapes, the historic coke ovens or rail trail.  

The southern route was designed 30 years ago, with little thought to preserving the Blackwater River’s unique cultural, historic and environmental integrity. 

Over the years, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and many of their partner groups, have attempted to raise the issue of the area’s extensive abandoned mine lands to the West Virginia Division of Highways and Federal Highway Administration through public comment periods, meetings and letters. It is likely the West Virginia Division of Highways will encounter sources of acid drainage during construction if the southern route for Corridor H is constructed. 

The southern route would pass across a large former strip mine underlain with a honeycomb of mine tunnels that are filled with acid mine drainage pollution. The former strip mine is in the Upper Freeport Coal Seam, which is the same coal seam that, when exposed to air and water, creates acid mine drainage pollution. American Rivers has recognized that construction in this area would be a recipe for disaster for water quality and stability of structures as mine tunnels could collapse and spill polluted water into the river.  

The northern route will also have to traverse a section of the Upper Freeport Coal Seam, however, it travels through far fewer abandoned mine land problem areas and identified mine discharge points.  

Unearthing new sources of acid drainage will not only have immediate impacts on the Blackwater River, but it would ultimately have negative impacts downstream in the Cheat River, where tens of millions of dollars have been spent to restore water quality. This scenario has the potential to undue decades of conservation work to restore the Cheat River.  

Supporters of the southern route contend that highway officials are doing all they can to avoid any known issues in this area. As the project moves forward in haste, it is unwise to rely purely on sentiments, especially considering the extensive damage Corridor H construction has caused to once pristine native brook trout producing streams in the nearby Kerens to Parsons project area.  

The public deserves to see evidence that highway officials have done their due diligence and have studied the issue of the underground mine pools and high-risk sites along the project area in depth instead of expecting us to rely on conjecture. 

On January 6, 2024, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to the West Virginia Division of Highways and Federal Highway Administration. Among the many requested items were data and reports for any surveys or investigations underway or completed concerning risks associated with highway construction and the existing coal mine workings. The organizations also asked for surveys regarding impacts to groundwater and drinking water sources and the risk of landslides given the instability of the steep mountain areas. The two agencies have thus far refused to fulfill the Freedom of Information Act request. 

As part of the announcement, American Rivers generated an online action alert to give the community the opportunity to send a letter to the Federal Highway Administration and urge them to support an unbiased and strong alternate northern route. If you would like to add your voice among ours, you can complete the action alert here.

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