Dean M. Chriss
Mine Acid Falls at High Water, West Virginia

Mine Acid Falls at High Water, West Virginia

(Click image to enlarge)

This image was captured in the spring of 2011, which is among the wettest on record.

This beautiful waterfall is off of the beaten path in rural West Virginia. The setting is idyllic, but the water is acidic and poisoned with heavy metals by abandoned coal mining and processing operations upstream. The rocks are colored an unnatural shade of orange wherever the water comes in contact with them. This photograph is processed in black and white to show how the place looked before mining destroyed the river. To accomplish this, blues and greens in the image contribute most of the luminosity in the black and white image. I used just enough of the reds and yellows to balance the stained and unstained areas on the rocks, rendering the orange stains invisible. Because the staining will last as long as the surface of the rocks, image manipulation is the only way to see the place in an unspoiled state.

All mining operations, including those for coal, open underground pathways that allow air and water to enter the mine. In addition miners haul tremendous amounts of unwanted rock from deep underground to the surface. Most of these rocks contain sulfides of iron, which react with air and water to form sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. The acidic liquid then dissolves heavy metals including copper, lead, and mercury and goes on to poison ground and surface water. After entering rivers and streams some or all of the iron can precipitate, coloring everything the water touches shades of red, orange, and yellow. The acidic water kills fish and those that survive accumulate heavy metals that work their way up the food chain to poison wildlife and humans. Acid mine drainage is the main cause of water pollution in the United States, affecting nearly 10,000 miles of rivers and streams. Coal mining in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia affects nearly 4,000 miles of rivers and streams. Coal mining pollutes our environment both before and after the coal is burned.