Almost 120 years after the end of the coal mining boom, America's rivers are still feeling the effects.

A river runs red

The impact of mining

Today, there are few working mines left in southeastern Ohio, but the region still bears the scar from years of extraction. Thousands of mines were opened and closed before there were any environmental protections on the books. They left their mark in the soil and in the streams.

Around 1803, mining in Ohio became popular for minerals such as coal, clay, limestone, sand and gravel. Until World War I, coal mining in Ohio was conducted almost exclusively underground and largely by manual labor. Most of the early underground coal mines and many industrial mineral mines in Ohio were drift mines.

A drift mine extends horizontally from the surface into the resource being etracted.

This new job opportunity was so popular that people moved from around the country to Ohio to join the booming economy. Companies were flocking to Ohio to purchase land and start participating in coal mining.

In 1910, 1 million people were employed in the mining industry. 50,000 of those miners were from Ohio.

More than 1,110 underground mines were in operation after the influx of people moving to Ohio. With the booming economy surrounding coal, production skyrocketed.

Although mining in Ohio was extremely productive for the economy, it was an unregulated industry for its first 150 years. Because there was a lack of regulation and understanding of impacts, the environment was severely polluted. Coal mining generated pollution at every stage of its life. Burning coal fueled health issues like asthma and bronchitis among the miners.

Burning coal also creates sulfur dioxide emissions that enter the atmosphere. This not only influenced climate change by helping raise the temperature it created tons of unregulated air pollution.

It took Ohio until 1970 to create legislation regarding mining pollution. They initiated the Federal Clean Air Act to control the discharge from the burned coal. This act made mining costs soar and drove people and businesses away, ultimately leading to numerous abandoned mines.

43 of Ohio's 88 counties have an abandoned mine.

Because some companies left abruptly, they didn’t properly dispose of the waste that was generated during mining. Today, thousands of tons of toxic coal lie within the watershed, increasing rates of erosion and acid mine drainage. This is what’s creating the rust-colored water affecting Ohio’s rivers. Acid mine drainage is currently the main pollutant of surface water in the mid-Atlantic region.

The drainage is an extremely acidic metal-rich water formed from chemical reactions between water and the exposed rocks containing sulfur-bearing minerals like pyrite.

The iron forms the red and orange sediments in the bottom of streams also known as “Yellowboy”.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon. Many of the abandoned mines in Southeast Ohio date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s, and acid mine drainage has degraded more than 4,500 stream miles in the mid-Atlantic region. According to data from the Voinovich School, by 2001, about 341 miles of streams in Ohio were impacted by the contamination.

The pollution caused by the drainage lowers the pH levels in the water.

Low pH levels impact wildlife who live in and around contaminated water. Fish reproduction is affected at pH levels below 5.0 and fish die when pH levels drop below 4.0, causing a steep decline in fish population within impacted areas.

The high iron concentrations create unlivable conditions for wildlife. Iron concentrations above 0.1mg/L can damage fish as small particles of iron get trapped in the fish gills.

Typically, contaminated water has a concentration of iron greater than 90mg/L.

In 2010, researchers tested 175 miles of contaminated streams in Southeast Ohio and found that only 27% qualified as a healthy habitat for animals and plants.

Some of the species affected:

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency warns that acid mine drainage not only increases the loss of aquatic life but it restricts stream use for outdoor recreation, tourism, public drinking water and industrial water supplies.

Water re-enters a river after being treated to help raise the pH levels. The 4,400 abandoned mines in the mid-Atlantic region release 800 to 1,000 gallons of contaminated water per minute and pollute at least 1,300 miles of freshwater across the region.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources partnered with local groups to monitor 183 miles of streams, 47 of which they have successfully restored. The project has taken decades, demonstrating the challenges of cleaning the pollution in the water.

A limestone doser sits on the riverbank and helps to remediate local streams by releasing limestone into the water. The program to use these dosers was developed by the Ohio Environmental Council.

Limestone dosers provide treatment directly to the streams. Limestone powder enters the water downstream from where the metals accumulate.

The powder raises the pH levels by bringing the acidity down in the water. This reduces the metal loads, allows wildlife to re-populate the water, and fights against the “Yellowboy.”

While some work to stop acid mine drainage, others work to raise awareness of the issue. Ohio University professors, Guy Riefler and John Sabraw create a series of paintings called “Chrome” using paint pigments they created from dried iron oxide found in the contaminated water.