$3M grant paves way for economic growth in old coal towns

KINGWOOD — A $3.014 million grant to Friends of the Cheat will bring a trail, a park and economic help for towns impacted by the legacy of coal mining.

The grant from the federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Pilot Program will build a rail-trail along the Cheat River, convert a former railroad bridge at the old Patriot cleaning plant to a foot bridge, provide two-year internships and funds to help the AML affected towns of Kingwood, Rowlesburg, Tunnelton and possibly Albright.

The goal of the program is to clean up AML impacted lands and stimulate economic development. Preston Countians can understand the need for both, Amanda Pitzer, the executive director of Friends of Cheat, said.

“When the request for proposals came out, I just knew in my heart that this was perfect for Friends of the Cheat (FOC) and for our goals, because we are right here in the heart of abandoned mine land territory here in West Virginia,” Pitzer said.

FOC requested $3.014 million. With required matching funds, spending will total about $3.2 million.

Most of the funds will go to build the trail along the Cheat River. FOC has rights to the nearly 10 miles of former rail line between Greer in Manheim, which is across the river from Rowlesburg, and Allegheny Wood Products, at the bottom of Caddell Mountain.

Bridges, including the big trestle bridge at Preston, on W.Va. 72, will be rehabbed. The trail will be paved. That’s required because of contaminants left by the railroad, Pitzer said, including arsenic and petroleum products.

“Which is really common with railroads,” she noted.

And the end result is a more versatile trail that can be used for rollerblading, pushing strollers and things other than feet and bikes, she added. Signage and lighting will also be built.

Ground may be broken for the trail in 2019.

An unpaved spur trail will be built from Preston to the Lick Run mine portal. That’s between Pringle Run and Heather.

“And the Lick Run portal is now the No. 1 source of pollution to the Cheat River,” Pitzer noted.

At Lick Run portal, FOC will develop a small acid mine drainage outdoor learning park.

“Scout groups, school groups — we do a lot of field trips,” Pitzer said. “So we’ll be able to go up to Lick Run and learn about acid mine drainage.”

Lick Run is unique in that half the site has been reclaimed, Pitzer said.

“So you can stand in the creek and you can look to your left and it’s a grassy hillside and there’s trees growing. But you look to the right, and there are open portals discharging several hundred gallons of acid water a minute.”

The reason for the split is that when the state did reclamation, there was concern that some actions could make the water worse.

“So it’s awful, but it’s an amazing learning experience, an amazing place to go,” Pitzer said.

There is also funding to test for a new acid mine drainage treatment, and FOC may try some of the new treatment.

The other piece of the grant puzzle is the community engagement piece. The “trail town” funding is modeled on Pennsylvania’s Great Allegheny Passage trail, which runs through rural communities in the Keystone State.

Experts will be brought into small towns to work on business development and research, marketing and connecting the towns with the trails. The goal is to be ready for visitors the trails will bring.

“We know we can’t just build a path through the woods and change people’s lives here, but if we can spur small businesses and different ways for people to really make an economic impact, we do think we can see a real change,” Pitzer said.

It’s a three-year program. The first year will be spent reaching out to people. In the second and third year, interns will be placed in the towns. In year two and three, mini-grants of up to $25,000 per year will be available to businesses and communities.

The grants could go to such diverse purposes as for the historical society to work on properties to being used as match for grants. Local folks will decide where the money goes.

All of this really got its start more than 20 years ago, when local residents, businesses, environmentalists and government combined to begin cleaning acid mine drainage from the Cheat River. And about 2001, some started talking about a trail along the Cheat River.

“It’s all just like dominoes,” Pitzer said. “It couldn’t come at a better time.”

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