Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River, where paradise lay…
–John Prine, “Paradise”
Last week we pulled Red into a campground at New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, for two days. Thrilled to be back in the woods after a few weeks in the city, the boys leapt out to explore before we’d even come to a complete stop. Within seconds they were hard at work picking out walking sticks, finding good skipping stones, and locating the perfect spot for a frigid dip in the low 40-something degree water. We headed out for a hike right away, before even setting up camp.
We were the only humans; that was clear. I thought we might see a deer on our hike, since it was getting close to dusk, but no luck. Later, as Nico chopped onions for dinner, he happily noted that it was nice not to have flies or mosquitoes buzzing around. We thought maybe this was because it was still pretty cold, in the 50s anyway.
By the next morning, though, I knew something was not right. I usually wake up before anyone else. This is my favorite part of the day, lying still in the cozy sleeping bag I share with Danny, watching the first rays of sun come through the trees, and listening to the cacophony of birds around us. All across the country, I’ve done this. The colors and calls of the birds change as we travel, but always, everywhere, they are loudest and busiest just as the sun comes up.
Today, though, the woods were silent. I sat up and looked into the trees, toward the river, then toward the mountains behind us. Eventually I spotted a warbler or two, but that was it. No ravens, or crows. We had always seen ravens or crows, everywhere we went. Come to think of it, there were no squirrels either. I noticed our trash bag, left out from the night before, lay untouched on the ground. No raccoons? And now, even at sunrise, no insects. No gnats, no flies, no daddy longlegs.
The rest of the family was up by now, and we talked about this over breakfast. Funny that no one had mentioned anything to us at the park’s Visitor Center. We’d asked about water at the campground, and were simply told there wasn’t any. Now though, sitting next to a rushing river, it seemed downright odd that there wasn’t even a well pump we could use to wash dishes. And why were there signs all along the river saying Catch and Release only? We kept thinking this must have been the feeling Rachel Carson had, when she wrote Silent Spring back in 1962.
The kids got to work on their Junior Ranger packets. There was a whole section on coal mining, including an activity where you decode a message that notes that, in its heyday, the coal industry “provided jobs for thousands of Americans and immigrants.” True enough, but that’s not all the story… The coal trains roll through four or five times a day. In fact, they are the noisiest things in the woods.
When we pulled out the next day and I could get a cell signal, I started googling. It didn’t take me long to find news reports of a massive chemical spill into the Elk River in 2014, one of the biggest in the country, which resulted in a state of emergency for nine counties and cut off water to some 300,000 people for nearly a week. The spill involved a chemical called methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), used to remove pollutants from coal before burning. Late last year, residents won a $151 million class-action lawsuit against the water company and the chemical company that produced the MCHM. The company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries, filed for bankruptcy shortly after the spill, but not before several individual lawsuits against its president were settled out of court.
As if that weren’t enough, the cleanup of the spill made things worse. The spill waste was mixed with sawdust and dumped in a landfill down the road in Hurricane, West Virginia. The city of Hurricane sued the two responsible waste management companies, and eventually settled out of court for $600,000. While these settlements seem like a lot of money, they don’t begin to compensate for the long-term impacts on people’s health. And as environmental regulations are being dismantled, they risk contributing to a culture of risk taking by companies, who simply pay the fines when they are caught, and move on.
It would be one thing if the New River habitat were only recovering from this single spill. Unfortunately, the Elk River spill is only the tip of the iceberg. On the National Park Service website, there is a section on “Environmental Factors.” (You have to root around to find it, by going to the Learn About the Park heading, and then the Nature subheading, but it’s there.) The page mentions various studies and says that:
Data from these studies suggest the presence of metals, organic contaminants and influx of raw sewage are common in many tributaries of the New River. Metals contamination, resulting from mining activities and or urban surface flows, are present in most tributaries, with four streams, Wolf Creek, Arbuckle Creek, Dunloup Creek and Piney Creek, showing pronounced values. Other sources of pollutants within park boundaries include unlined landfills, illegal dumps, pesticide sprayed directly into the New River, agricultural runoff, road salt runoff, direct discharge of residential sewage, inadequate municipal sewage treatment facilities, recreation waste streams, and industrial discharges.
I read it a few times, trying to take it all in. With pollutants from abandoned mines, trash and sewage dumps, and pesticides sprayed directly into the river, no animal in its right mind would go anywhere near there.
Nature corrects the mistakes of humankind, and reminds us every day that it will survive even the most horrendous threats to its existence. Evidence of this was all around us in the park. Moss – a crucial pioneer species – covered many of the rocks. Moss plays a super important role in building soil after a disturbance by breaking down rocks into their constituent minerals, so that plants can grow. Rhododendron trees were spreading into the riverbed areas, working hard to filter out impurities and prepare the soil for larger trees. Eventually, one hopes, these plants can repair the damage to a point where animals will want to come near the river again.
I couldn’t help wondering, how much can we ask of nature? Plants will find a way to survive almost anything. Whether animals – humans included – will manage to stay in the game is another question.
…Well they dug for their coal ‘til the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down in the progress of Man.
–John Prine, “Paradise”