INTERVIEW with Cheryl Socotch, Hydrogeologist, Division of Mineral Resources
What do you do to support sustainable development in Ohio?
I assist local watershed groups and government agencies develop restoration plans for streams and watersheds impacted by acid mine drainage, which is a result from past coal mining activities. Acid mine drainage, or AMD, is the most severe water pollution problem throughout the Appalachian coalfield regions that includes southeastern Ohio. The first photograph shows AMD emitted from an abandoned old mine entry in Carroll county.
What is acid mine drainage and how does it affect streams?
AMD is polluted water resulting from mining or a disturbance of the earth. During the coal mining process, sulfur-bearing minerals, such as iron, pyrite, aluminum and manganese are exposed to air and water and a series of chemical reactions occur. Some of these metals give streams a noticeable reddish-orange appearance.
The second photograph shows a deep mine discharge from an abandoned mine in Coshocton County that flows directly into Wills Creek and reservoir. Aquatic life is threatened by these chemical reactions due to low pH, or acidic conditions, and by aluminum and other metals that can be toxic. Some metals coat the bottom of streambeds smothering aquatic bugs and organisms that provide food for those higher up on the food chain. Metals can coat the gills of fish causing them to choke.
How do you know when a stream is polluted?
I commonly sample chemical characteristics of a stream for pH, conductivity and dissolved oxygen. I also observe biological and physical characteristics. These include the number and type of species that live within the stream community, stability of the stream channel and substrate and the amount of vegetation providing shelter and shade. I use this data to establish short and long-term biological and water quality monitoring programs and to recommend effective abatement strategies to restore healthy aquatic communities.
Once a year, at Huff Run Awareness Day, I show school children this stream monitoring process. In the photo above, I am sitting on rocks that make up a limestone channel through which mine water is routed to neutralize the low pH water. I am showing students how I use pH strips and digital meters to test the pH of the water.
What are some techniques used to treat AMD?
Mine drainage can be treated with active chemical reagents or by using passive techniques such as constructing a large trench, or ditch filled with limestone to neutralize the pH. More complicated approaches involve passing contaminated water through a series of wetland ponds, or cells, to raise the pH and allow the metals to settle before entering the stream. A wetland cells remediation project in Coshocton County is shown at right. It is used to treat problem metals discharged from an underground mine.
What is most challenging about your job?
There are over 1,300 miles of streams in Ohio impacted from mine drainage. Although it is inspiring that records indicate restoration efforts can be successful and citizen watershed groups are becoming increasingly more involved in these efforts, we are still a long way from returning these streams to their full attainment.