MORGANTOWN – Sen. Shelly Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley spent Monday morning touring Morgantown Utility Board’s wastewater treatment plant and visiting the construction site for the Richard Mine acid mine drainage treatment plant.
Their mission was threefold, they said: to promote the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which they both voted for along with Sen. Joe Manchin; to learn about local infrastructure projects as part of their statewide infrastructure tour; and to learn about what tweaks the legislation might need to make it work better.
At MUB, their tour took them from the brightly lit but somewhat smelly headworks building – with shiny blue pipes and gleaming steel – where rags and other large materials are screened out; past the familiar circular clarifiers; to the high-tech realm of membrane bio reactor basins, membrane tanks, digesters and ultraviolet disinfection.
At the end of the line, Greg Shellito, MUB manager of treatment and production, drew a container full of clear water near drinking water quality. There, it’s discharged into the Monongahela River and is actually cleaner than the river water flowing by.
They learned that just this year, MUB wrapped up a $58 million upgrade project started in 2017 that allowed MUB to both increase treatment capacity and discharge even cleaner water than before.
At Richard Mine, there’s not a lot to see yet: the new bridge spanning the creek and granting access to the mine portal, some metal huts, some heavy equipment tooling around on the field where the treatment plan will take shape. The $5.65 million Department of Environmental Protection project got underway in March and DEP projects it will be complete in March 2024.
Capito and McKinley gathered inside one of the huts with DEP officials and officials from project contractor Breckenridge Corp., based in Buckhannon.
DEP Deputy Secretary Rob Rice, director of the Division of Land Restoration, gave an overview of the project and WVU’s research into extracting rare earth minerals from the acid mine drainage here at Richard.
“We’re hoping that we can find ourselves in a situation where the rare earths will actually pay for the treatment,” he said. “We want to turn these environmental liabilities into assets, and if we can figure out how t0 extract the rare earths then we’ll be able to do that.”
This project has a bit of a leg up on that vision because Breckenridge is also building the Mount Storm AMD treatment plant where WVU’s Water Research Institute expects its rare earth element production pilot project to start producing product this summer.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allots $11.3 billion in funding to reclaim abandoned mine lands for 15 years. About $700 million has been allotted for AML projects in West Virginia that will be dispersed over the next five years.
McKinley said West Virginia has more than 4,500 AML sites to fix and Rice said DEP’s goal is to address all of them at the end of that time span. “That’s going to be a tall order but we think we can get there,” Rice said.
The lawmakers and DEP officials talked about how AML money in the act can benefit communities. For instance, the lower end of Deckers Creek below the mine portal flows through the middle of Morgantown but it’s dead and orange and doesn’t sustain aquatic life.
Reviving the stream, they said, enhances quality of life. DEP Deputy Secretary Scott Mandirola mentioned the Muddy Creek project that restored 13 miles of stream and now offers trout fishing. “That could be the same story that you have here in Deckers Creek,” he said.
They talked about one of the tweaks the infrastructure act needs that McKinley learned about during a meeting with Rice in Charleston.
Traditional AML funding allows states to set aside up to 30% of their allotment for long-term operations and maintenance of AMD sites. But the infrastructure act failed to specify that. This created uncertainty for watershed groups — uncertainty that they could maintain AMD projects if they started them.
So McKinley and Matt Cartwright, R-Pa., joined to introduce a bill called the STREAM Act to fix the problem. This bill mirrors existing AML law to also allow states to set aside up to 30% of funding for AML restoration projects undertaken with infrastructure act money.
The bill is in the House Committee on Natural Resources and McKinley said the committee chair said he plans to look at it. Sens Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Mike Braun, R-Ind., have introduced a sister bill with the same name in the Senate.
Rice said that DEP’s first goal will be to go for projects that have been overlooked for years for lack of money. One of them will be stabilization at Morgantown Municipal Airport, which is undermined by a different mine. That stabilization should allow for a runway extension
After the tour, Capito and McKinley answered some press questions, including what their take-home was from the day’s visits.
Capito said, “There’s a lot of need. … There’s still some tweaking that needs to be be done to make sure that we’re maximizing the availability of funds for West Virginia.
McKinley said every local and state official wants good jobs. But you can’t have jobs without the water, sewer, and other infrastructure. “This is the backbone to how you have economic development.”
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