Life Before the Clean Water Act

Two days ago, just in time for the American high holy day of Halloween, Marc and I returned from a vacation spent with my mother and her husband, Helen and Bob Payne. They now live in coastal South Carolina, but both are natives of Charleston, West Virginia. Having just reflected on the Clean Water Act’s 40th anniversary, I thought I’d ask them what they remembered of West Virginia’s waters before the Act came to pass.

I broached the topic by sharing my own memories of seeing and smelling the fuel sheen while floating in the Kanawha River, waiting for my uncle’s ski boat to rev its engine and pull me up above the water’s surface. Their reflexive response, thinking I probably had it wrong, was “You mean the Elk River? Where exactly were you?”

Being only an occasional visitor to Charleston, they naturally assumed that I was getting my rivers confused. Charleston sits at the confluence of the Elk and Kanawha Rivers, which together flow on to the Ohio, and later the Mississippi. The Elk River has long been known for its fly fishing. My great grandparents’ modest fishing camp upstream in Clay County is still in the family and has provided many generations of canoeing, swimming, and fishing fun. It’s a wild river upstream, but near its confluence with the Kanawha broadens out to allow power boats and even water skiing.

But I was well aware of the difference between the two rivers, and I knew I was remembering skiing in the Kanawha. “We were right downtown. I don’t know if it was upstream or downstream of the confluence, but there was a big bridge overhead.” That seemed to be enough to convince them that I knew my rivers, even in my childhood memories. My mom would generally send my brother and me to “Camp Grandma” for a week in the summer so it was entirely likely that she wasn’t along for the visit.

They both said that they never went into the Kanawha. According to Bob, “My father told me to never go in. He said that if I stuck my toe into the water it would fall off from all of the chemicals.” His father, probably a boy 1910’s, also grew up in Charleston and knew the river when it was still a pristine playground. He knew the river as she should be, and had witnessed the deterioration. Perhaps it was viewed as the price of progress.

Mom also remembered black globs of congealed coal dust bobbing in the eddies, and Bob told of rafts of plastic and glass debris that would be washed down from upstream dams after big rainstorms. Bob went on to tell me that downstream from Charleston it was especially bad. Chemical companies that included all the big names – Union Carbide, Dow, Dupont, Monsanto – operated with typical pre-Clean Water Act behavior and used the river as their discharge pipe. Bob told me that the foam on the river down there was enough to remove any thought of dipping toes.

Mom was a little shocked that her brother had taken us kids skiing in the Kanawha back in those days. I managed to live through it, but it’s probably good that I didn’t do it routinely But it wasn’t just the Kanawha they remembered. Bob also remembered client visits, probably in the 1960’s, up into the coal country of Logan County. Driving up the hollows he could see toilet paper in the trees. No, he wasn’t seeing the handiwork of mischevious high schoolers. This was the high water mark – the creeks routinely carried sewage from straight pipes coming from the homes up and down the hollow. When heavy rains fell, the creek rose and left the toilet paper in the tree branches as evidence.

So if you want to know what the Clean Water Act has done for you lately, the answer may be no more than a conversation away. Ask the question and see what you learn

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