Years of mining, agriculture and other activities have altered the landscape and the ecological health of the creek. Grassroots groups, government agencies and many other partners have come together in this collaborative effort to restore the health of the watershed.
Over the past decade, researchers throughout the Raccoon Creek Watershed have been conducting the chemical and biological tests necessary to assess recovery efforts. This data has been organized and stored in a master database which is now accessible to the public online. The database is linked with a map viewer so the user can easily find chemical and biological water quality information for the specific area of interest. The online database also allows remote entry of data for Raccoon Creek Partners to allow for more up-to-date data availability and access.
Sources of Impairment
The most significant sources of impairment to Raccoon Creek and its tributaries are:
Iron Pyrite + Water + O2 = Sulfuric Acid
Acid mine drainage is the most prevalent pollutant in Raccoon Creek and its tributaries, and has been defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the number one water quality problem in Appalachia. The watershed contains about 25,610 acres of underground mines and 21,550 acres of surface mines. In the headwaters alone, there are 1,100 acres of abandoned surface mines and 110 acres of abandoned coal refuse piles. Underground and Surface Mines Map. Water quality problems occur when coal and pyrite (iron sulfide) are exposed to oxygen and water. Through oxidation of the pyrite, sulfuric acid is formed. As this acid passes over different rock strata surrounding the pyrite, it dissolves metals including iron, aluminum and manganese. This influx of acid and metal not only reduces the number and diversity of aquatic organisms; it also increases the corrosiveness of the water, limits its domestic use and impairs the aesthetic qualities.
More than a century of coal mining has affected the water quality of the watershed’s surface waters. Acid Mine Drainage flowing from abandoned underground and surface coal mines causes the most severe degradation to the living resources and aquatic habitat in the Raccoon Creek watershed. The gravity of the problem ranges from a reduction in the diversity and quantity of fish in most of the main stem, to the complete loss of wildlife and quality habitat in some of the tributaries.
In AMD waters, such as this area of Pierce Run, high concentrations of metals, such as iron (orange) and aluminum (white), are detrimental to aquatic ecosystems.
To better understand the effect of the acid on the ecosystem, compare the common substances below to the water entering the Raccoon Creek Watershed from coal mining operations. The optimal pH range for most living things is between 6.5 and 8.2, much of the AMD water has a pH below 3.0!
Erosion and Sedimentation
Erosion is the process in which soil particles loosen and are carried away by water or wind. The process transfers topsoil to the stream, reducing water quality, harming aquatic life, and destabilizing hillsides and riparian zones. Sedimentation is the accumulation of soil in the streambed, which usually occurs where the water current has slowed and cannot suspend soil particles. This accumulation reduces water clarity and can alter aquatic habitat that is essential for fish and macro-invertebrates. The Ohio EPA has identified siltation as a significant problem in Raccoon Creek with the main sources of impairment ranging from abandoned coal mines to removal of riparian habitat. Portions of the Raccoon Creek watershed with the most significant erosion and sedimentation degradation include Sandy Run, Lake Hope, Honey Fork, Wheelabout Creek, Elk Fork, Meadow Run, Opposum Run, Strongs Run, Raccoon Creek (from Flatlick Run to Little Raccoon Creek) and Williams Run.
Poorly Treated Sewage
The presence of untreated or poorly treated sewage in surface or groundwater can pose significant risks to both humans and the environment. Raw sewage contains many pathogens that are dangerous to public health. People who come into contact with contaminated water could contract illnesses such as typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, hepatitis, tetanus, dysentery, and gastroenteritis. Poor sewage disposal practices—in the most extreme cases, a pipe that discharges waste directly into a water body—can significantly damage the aquatic ecology. The high levels of nutrients in sewage can increase the amount of algae present in the water. Rapid increases of algae colonies, or “blooms,” can significantly decrease the amount of oxygen in the water, making the stream inhospitable to other aerobic (oxygen-dependent) organisms. Such an event is often referred to as a “fish kill” and is commonly associated with sewage system failures and other episodes of contamination. Ohio EPA lists Meadow Run and Little Raccoon Creek as impaired by wastewater with the cause of impairment listed as organic enrichment/ dissolved oxygen. Private septic systems typically are environmentally sound, as long as they function properly and are maintained. Unfortunately, many systems in the watershed are not (officials have estimated 80% or 2,186 systems in Vinton County may be failing or in need of maintenance), leaving untreated sewage to discharge into Raccoon Creek and other waterways.
For more on the Meadow Run study please see our Water Quality Monitoring page.
Natural Gas and Oil Byproducts
In addition to effluent from households and treatment facilities, byproducts from gas and oil drilling also impair portions of the watershed. Ohio EPA’s 305b Report lists oil and grease as causes of impairment to four Raccoon Creek tributaries, Russell Run, Flat Run, Opposum Run and Long Run. Brine, underground trapped sea water, is circulated to the earth’s surface during well drilling. Although most of the brine, once separated from the fuel, is re-injected into the ground, inspectors must make sure the saline does not seep into the wells and contaminate the groundwater. The metals and chlorides in brine hinder vegetation growth and are difficult to remove from the soil once contaminated.
Industrial Point Source Pollution
According to Ohio EPA’s 305b Report and Raccoon Creek’s Basin study in 1995, industrial point sources have impaired three Raccoon Creek tributaries. The Austin Powder Corp. has contributed unionized ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite to the Austin Powder Tributary to Elk Fork. The Pillsbury/General Mills plant in Wellston has discharged unionized ammonia to Meadow Run and also has impaired Little Raccoon Creek.
An annual average of more than 9.2 million angler hours are spent fishing inland waters (ODNR 2001). Aside from recreation, aquatic species serve another purpose in the Raccoon Creek watershed; they are gages in determining stream water quality. Macroinvertebrates, which include insects, mollusks and crustaceans, are the group most frequently used in the biological monitoring of water quality. Assessment of fish and macroinvertebrate populations within polluted streams can provide comprehensive data on the health of a watershed and offer water quality information not readily detected by chemical means.
To assess biological health, field researchers look for “indicator species,” which include macroinvertebrates and fish that are either sensitive to specific types of pollution (intolerant) or can persist despite pollution (tolerant). Those that are sensitive to the effects of AMD pollution cannot exist in waters with high metals or acidity caused by AMD. The presence of these species indicates a relatively low impact of acid mine drainage upon the stream. The black redhorse and the mimic shiner fish provide two examples of species intolerant to pollution. The three orders of aquatic insects that are most often used as sensitive indicators of pollution include mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. These intolerant fish and macro-invertebrates species are found in very low populations along the Raccoon Creek basin, indicating poor water quality in the creek’s main stem (OEPA 2001). At the other extreme are species such as the alderfly larvae and midges, which can tolerate waters with higher acid mine drainage impact, such as those found in Little Raccoon Creek or the headwaters.
As pollution increases, the overall diversity and abundance of insects and fish would decrease. The macroinvertebrates that are found within impacted waters would shift from sensitive taxa to those more tolerant of pollution. Mayflies, stoneflies, crustaceans and mollusks would become rare or not present at all, while alderflies and chironomids would dominate.
It is the biology of the stream that ultimately reveals the water’s true health, both before and after restoration efforts. In 1995, the Ohio EPA conducted a basin study that provided a snapshot of the biological health of Raccoon Creek. Since that time, project partners have conducted additional biological assessments in order to track the Creek’s recovery. Overall, the northern part of the watershed, at the headwaters, experiences a poor biological community performance because of acid mine drainage. Middle and lower portions of the watershed, however, range from fair to good in supporting aquatic life.
The Ohio EPA has assessed a total of 269 river and stream miles in the Raccoon Creek basin and has designated them as warmwater habitat or limited resource water-acid mine drainage. Eighty-five miles were in full attainment of the warmwater habitat (WWH) biocriteria or the limited resource water-acid mine drainage (LRW-AMD) designation—meaning they meet those designated “benchmarks.” Approximately 140 miles were in partial attainment, and 44 miles were in non-attainment of these benchmarks (OEPA 1997, 2).
Be sure to visit our Volunteer Monitoring page for more information on how stream health is assessed and how you can help!
Also visit the NPS Monitoring Project site and Raccoon Creek water quality database at www.watersheddata.com to view project details, area maps, and detailed chemical and biological data for all sites in the watershed.