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Mussel Woman: Biologist Passes Along Pearls Of Wisdom About Threatened Mussels

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Biologist Janet Clayton has studied freshwater mussels for much of her 30-year career. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Janet Clayton is standing thigh-deep in a back channel of the Elk River. Clad in a wetsuit and knee pads, the silver-haired biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources reaches into a bright orange mesh bag submerged in water.

Inside are a half dozen mussels she plucked from the rocky river bottom.

“This is called a long solid,” Clayton says. An earthy colored shell about the size of a computer mouse sits in the palm of her hand. “As it gets older it gets really long.”

Biologists measure and monitor the mussels at the Elk River site. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Her bag also includes a pocketbook mussel, wavy-rayed lampmussel and kidneyshell.

The biologically diverse waterways of the Ohio Valley are home to more than 100 species of freshwater mussels. Each can filter five to 10 gallons of water daily. But pollution, land-use change and a changing climate threaten their very existence. They’re among the most endangered animals in the United States.

Clayton, a West Virginia native, began her career researching aquatic invertebrates but quickly switched gears to studying the state’s mussels and never looked back. She has worked with them for three decades and leads West Virginia’s mussel program, which she helped develop.

As Clayton approaches retirement next June, she is reflecting on how the field has grown and changed. Today, scientists know a lot more about freshwater mussels and how to protect them, partly due to her work.

Some other biologists call her a “hero” for the often overlooked species. But just as Clayton prepares to pass on her pearls of wisdom, she is also sounding an alarm about the population decline she has documented, and what that says about river quality.

“Mussels live for decades in our streams,” Clayton said. “So, they’re like the canary in the coal mine.”

Biologists at work in the Elk River. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Mussel and Flow

In addition to filtering water, mussel excrement provides food for macroinvertebrates and benthic critters. Mussels themselves are a food source for many mammals, and the bivalves also help keep river bottoms in place.

To protect and preserve freshwater mussels, Clayton and her team use a three-pronged approach.

“Surveys, monitoring and restoration are kind of the three components,” she said.

Mussel shells along Kentucky’s Green River. Photo: Jeff Young/Ohio Valley ReSource

Working with partners across state and federal agencies in the Ohio Valley, Clayton developed mussel surveying methods that have been widely adopted. Her team has also set up 26 long-term monitoring sites, which helps the team assess the health of the state’s mussel population. The researchers also help restore mussels to waterways, sometimes by relocating parts of healthy stock. Other times, lab-grown mussels are used.

“One of the important things that scientists have learned in the last couple of years is how to grow them in captivity without their specific host fish,” said Tierra Curry, a Kentucky-based scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, which advocates for federal protections for mussels and other threatened species.

“So now, the knowledge to be able to breed them and save them is available, but they don’t have the funding that they need to keep them from going extinct,” she said.

Curry said Clayton’s work on mussels has been very important to the field.

“Janet Clayton is a total hero for freshwater mussels,” she said. “She’s been such an asset to West Virginia and to the whole study of freshwater mussels.”

On the Elk 

One aspect of that study is tracking mussels found at long-term monitoring sites. On a recent weekday, Clayton and a handful of researchers clad in wetsuits and goggles bobbed in the gurgling Elk River.

Bright yellow string shimmers beneath the surface dividing the river bottom into five-by-five meter squares, resembling a giant underwater game of tic-tac-toe.

The scientists are plucking every mussel they can find out of the water and placing neon flags in their wake.

“When we go back, we can put the mussel in a hole,” Clayton said. “So it’s easier, less energy-consuming for that mussel to rebury into the substrate.”

Each mussel will be tagged with a small silver plastic tag and measured.

“So we’ve actually had mussels in here who’ve been tracked for the 15-year period we’ve been monitoring here,” she said.

Five years ago, Clayton and her team pulled hundreds of dead and dying three-ridge mussels from this river. The cause remains a mystery.

“We have no idea,” she said. “We’ve gone through investigations trying to figure out what’s the problem.”

Good quality water is vital to the health of mussels. And humans have not always treated waterways with care. Chemical discharges, excess sediment and dams pose challenges to mussels.

The team has successfully restored mussels after mortality events and have even seen once mussel-free streams come back. But there are also examples, like at this site in the Elk River, where the mussels aren’t flourishing, and it’s unclear why.

As she nears retirement, Clayton said she fears legacy impacts from coal mining, such as acid mine drainage, mean some waterways will never again be healthy enough to support mussels.

And new threats have emerged. Climate change could alter water flow and temperatures, and the growing natural gas industry brings water-intensive processes and pipelines that are being constructed through waterways.

“I’m concerned. I’m very concerned,” she said. “If mussels are dying – which in this case, they are – if mussels are dying, what’s in this water that’s causing them to die? We need to wake up and pay attention to what’s out there.”

Access to Clean Water

Water Is Unaffordable for Nearly Half of This Kentucky County’s Residents

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Photo: Benny Becker/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

A new report finds nearly half the residents of Martin County, Kentucky, cannot afford water service. Local activists with the Martin County Concerned Citizens are ringing alarm bells about water affordability as the beleaguered county faces another likely water rate increase in the coming months. 

Since the ReSource first reported on its water crisis two years ago, Martin County has become the prime example of rural communities struggling to maintain aging water systems.  

The county in eastern Kentucky’s coal country is one of the poorest in the state, but it boasts the eighth-highest average water bill out of the 141 districts regulated by the state’s Public Service Commission, according to the analysts behind a new report. Despite the high cost of service, Martin County’s ailing and outdated water system has left residents without water for days at a time, often delivers water that is undrinkable, and some residents claim it makes them sick. 

Soon, Martin County residents are likely to face a water rate increase that will mean more than half the county’s residents cannot afford water. 

As populations in rural America continue to drop, the rising cost of maintaining aging water systems falls on fewer residents. In central Appalachia, where average incomes are well below the national average, the burden imposed by those rising costs can be too much to bear. 

“There are many places in Kentucky where the citizens simply can’t afford to pay the rates necessary to get the repairs done,” said Mary Cromer, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center.

“Captive Customers” 

Martin County is under investigation for the third time since 2002 for financial mismanagement, service interruptions and excessive water loss. The district has violated federal water quality standards 90 times since 2001, according to the report, and data from the Public Service Commission shows that Martin County loses up to 70 percent of the water it treats before the water reaches residents’ taps. 

In a recent order, the PSC called the district’s condition “grim and desperate.” PSC Chairman Michael Schmitt added, “residents of Martin County are, unfortunately, the captive customers of what most certainly has been, over the last two decades, the most poorly operated water district in the state of Kentucky.” 

A still image from a video of foul water in a Martin County home. Photo: Courtesy of Mountain Citizen

Once a coal-producing mecca, Martin County has seen employment fall by 32 percent since July 2010. The water affordability analysis showed that 25 percent of Martin County residents live on $15,000 per year or less, with about 18 percent surviving on just $10,000 or less. 

“When you’re making less than $10,000 a year, pretty much everything is unaffordable,” said Cromer, who is representing Martin County residents in proceedings with the PSC. 

National and international bodies have guidelines to help water districts price water at an affordable level. The United Nations says water is unaffordable when it costs more than 3 percent of household income; the Environmental Protection Agency places that figure at 2.5 percent. 

According to the report, which was produced by the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and the community group Martin County Concerned Citizens, 46 percent of all Martin County residents are paying a share of household income that exceeds the EPA guidelines. Martin County’s poorest residents, those earning less than $10,000 per year, pay as much as 6.5 percent of their income toward water bills. 

The report found that Breathitt County, Kentucky, has the state’s highest water burden, at 2.7 percent, and Martin County has the second-highest at 2.4 percent. Customers in Martin County are spending 75 percent more of their income on their water bills than are customers in Oldham County, which has the state’s lowest water burden. 

The potential upcoming increase could be the second within a year, after a series of rate hearings increased the average bill by 41 percent since January 2018 to an average of $54.37 per household in November of the same year.

The November increase also mandated that Martin County hire an outside management company to run the district’s affairs, the key move that will likely render another rate hike necessary.

Missouri-based Alliance Water Resources was the only company to submit a bid and is currently negotiating the terms of the contract with the Martin County water board. 

“We feel pretty confident, from our conversations with Alliance Water Resources, and just looking at what it would take for a for-profit company to run the district, that it’s going to require another rate increase,” Cromer said.

At a recent meeting of concerned citizens at Martin County High School, residents expressed anger that their limited dollars would be used to pay a for-profit, out-of-state company. 

“Don’t we have nobody here who could manage us?” asked one attendee. 

PSC spokesperson Andrew Melnykovych said in a recent interview that an additional rate increase is not necessarily guaranteed as a result of hiring outside management. “It would depend on what the cost of the new management is relative to what they are paying now for their internal management services. And are there operational efficiencies that are going to be achieved through outside management that reduce cost somewhere else?”

Martin Countians are already struggling to pay. In a system with 3,500 customers, 300 disconnect notices were issued in July alone, according to the report, and the district has gone so far as to arrest a resident for stealing water. 

With a 25 percent increase in water rates, the water burden on Martin County’s poorest residents could rise to 8.2 percent. 

“I barely make it from month to month now,” said a Martin County resident who went by Kim C., sharing her story in the report. “So if our water bills go up, I like many would have to have it disconnected because I could not afford it.”

Another resident, Ruth Crum, said, “Our bills are already around $81 or higher a month. We are on Social Security, we can’t afford higher water bills…If they raise our water bill, we will disconnect our city water.”

The PSC maintains that according to statutes, it cannot consider customers’ ability to pay when considering potential rate increases. 

Not Alone

Martin County is the most notorious of Kentucky’s rural water systems, but it is by no means alone in its difficulties. The PSC in March announced a new investigation into 12 water utilities struggling with water loss rates similar to Martin County’s. The most recent report for Kentucky from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that Kentucky’s drinking water infrastructure needs $8.2 billion in investment, an increase of 33 percent from 2013 to 2017. Ohio and West Virginia require $13.4 billion and $1.39 billion, respectively. 

“I am proud of Kentucky for how much effort has been put into the drinking water system,” said Colette Easter, Infrastructure Report Card Technical Chair with ASCE. “But we are dealing with systems that are old.” Easter said the reduced demand for water due to a declining population compounds the problem. 

Martin County attorney Cromer said her goal was for rural water districts like Martin County to think bigger. “People need to be rethinking how we’re designing water systems and how we’re looking at rates and how we’re funding infrastructure repairs,” she said. “Maybe we need to be looking at smaller, more resilient systems that are less dependent on running lines up and over mountains and are more community-based.”

Martin County residents plan to call their legislators, hold protests and continue speaking out to oppose further rate increases. 

The PSC has scheduled a hearing on October 22 on Martin County’s water loss and the efficacy of current rate structures.

Sydney Boles is the ReSource reporter covering the economic transition in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country.

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Study Finds West Virginia Counties Among ‘Worst in Nation’ For Drinking Water Violations

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Photo: Dave Mistich/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A new study released Tuesday by three environmental groups found more than half of West Virginia counties rank among the worst in the nation for violations of a federal law that protects the quality of drinking water in the U.S. 

The report, “Watered Down Justice,” ranked 36 of the state’s 55 counties among the top third worst-offending U.S. counties. 

The analysis found millions of people across the country, including thousands in West Virginia, consumed water from drinking systems that were out of compliance with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Small, often rural, community water systems were among the top offenders, along with systems responsible for serving communities of color and low socioeconomic conditions. 

In West Virginia, where much of the state’s residents live rurally, many people depend on small community water systems.  

Systems nationwide serving less than 3,300 people accounted for more than 80 percent of all SDWA violations, according to the study. Even smaller systems, serving less than 500 people, were reportedly responsible for more than 60 percent of all SDWA violations, and for 50 percent of health-based violations. 

At a press conference at the Capitol in Charleston Tuesday afternoon, a series of speakers, including two state lawmakers and representatives from environmental groups, said the study not only found West Virginia counties violated the SDWA often, but also spent a lot of time not complying with the law in general. According to the report, 42 West Virginia counties are among the top third in the nation for counties who spend the most time out of compliance. 

What Is The SDWA?

Three environmental groups — the Natural Resources Defense Council, Coming Clean and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance — analyzed health-based violations of the SDWA between June 1, 2016, and May 31, 2019. 

The SDWA was established in 1974. This act requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate drinking water sources and to protect residents from both naturally-occurring and man-made contaminants. 

The EPA sets legal limits on more than 90 contaminants in drinking water, including chemical contaminants, lead and copper. These contaminants can lead to a large swath of health problems affecting a variety of ages, including cancer and impaired brain development.

When it comes to public water systems, the EPA regulates those that provide water to at least 15 service connections, or at least 25 people for at least 60 days a year. 

Quality Of Life ‘Inseparable’ From Quality Of Water

Drinking water faces many threats, including those from chemicals and the improper disposal of human and animal waste. 

In 2014, a chemical spill near Charleston left more than 300,000 West Virginians without drinking water for a week after a storage tank at Freedom Industries leaked more than 10,000 gallons of toxic materials into the Elk River. In 2000, dangerous levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, or C8, were discovered in water systems, coming from chemical company DuPont’s plant near Parkersburg. Earlier this year, officials discovered chemical water contaminants in Wetzel County. 

“We all know West Virginia is no stranger to our water contamination,” said Pam Nixon, President of People Concerned About Chemical Safety.

Since the 2014 incident, Nixon said she has noticed signs and reactions to the “water crisis” everywhere, including grocery stores. 

“People in West Virginia realize that our water is contaminated,” she said. “We’ve noticed from 2014 to now, how the section for bottled water has expanded. And when you look, there are, unfortunately, some people who really can’t afford to buy water, they don’t feel comfortable drinking it, so they’re buying bottled water. You can see it in the carts.”

Rick Martin, president of the Charleston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), said the spill in 2014 was an “unforgettable experience,” and “difficult to forgive, particularly in low-income communities and our communities of color.” 

According to the report, findings showed a relationship between sociodemographic characteristics at the county level, like race and income, and those counties’ drinking water violations. 

“Quality of life and quality of water go hand in hand,” Martin said. “They’re inseparable.” 

Martin said there will be a push next year to reintroduce House Bill 2153 and Senate Bill 573, both of which failed in 2019. These bills would create a minority health advisory team to assist local communities in developing plans to address local public health crises, like water contamination. 

Democratic West Virginia Dels. Mike Pushkin and Evan Hansen also spoke at the press conference. 

Pushkin, who lives on the west side of Charleston, referred to his area as “ground zero” for the 2014 spill. He said the report came as “no surprise to those of us who have lived here for a long time.”

“Charleston still has not fully recovered,” Pushkin said. “This part of the state still hasn’t fully recovered from that industrial disaster that took place in January 2014.”

He described the “amount of people who moved out of the area, some of the businesses that closed up and still haven’t come back.”

“Since then … I have seen the Legislature roll back the Aboveground Storage Tank Act that was passed as a reaction to that chemical spill. … I have seen the weakening of water quality standards every year,” he said. 

Pushkin said he rejects the narrative that deregulation is needed to attract and retain businesses to West Virginia. 

“This narrative that we’re being fed is a lie,” he added. “We saw businesses that shut down because of the chemical spill in 2014.”

According to the report, there were 170,959 violations of the SDWA in 24,133 community water systems across the U.S. 

Almost 40 percent of the U.S. population, according to the report, consumed water from drinking systems that violated the SDWA. 

Researchers found 437 counties, mostly in the southwest part of the country, spent the longest average lengths of time, out of compliance, per drinking system.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Access to Clean Water

One Piece at a Time: Cleaning Trash from W.Va Waterways

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Zoma Archambault at one of his trash cleanup sites. He has spent the past year and a half cleaning up trash at abandoned campsites near rivers in Monongalia County. Photo: Caitlin Tan, West Virginia Public Broadcast

It is a hot, muggy day along the Monongahela River. Zoma Archambault is standing on a small, sandy beach about 10 minutes from Morgantown. It is one of the few along the river, as much of it is covered in thick brush and mud.

The beach used to be an informal camp spot. Zoma found it abandoned, with trash covering the ground in every direction. It is almost all picked up now, aside from some muddy clothes, a couple hypodermic needles and roof shingles.

The nearby stream flowing into the river erodes the dirt, exposing some of this older trash.

“Yeah there’s still trash, it’ll be eroding out for years,” Zoma says.

Toxic to Aquatic Life

In Morgantown abandoned campsites along the rivers, like the one described, are common. Over time the left-behind trash can break down and contaminate river ecosystems, which is something that concerns Zoma. He has volunteered the past year and a half cleaning these trash sites.

Trash at one of the abandoned campsites before Zoma began cleaning. He has cleaned 100, 33- and 55-gallon bags worth of trash this year. Credit: Zoma Archambault

“I strongly don’t believe in, of course, microplastics in the ocean – we have a tremendous problem in the world because of it,” he says.

Microplastics are the size of a sesame seed and nearly impossible to clean, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and they are toxic to aquatic life and birds. Microplastics can form from littered plastic products, like a grocery bag, that over time, break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually getting washed into our waterways. 

“Yeah, that stuff does not belong in our rivers,” Zoma says.

The sites Zoma cleans are usually hidden from the bike path, so they can go unnoticed. To get to this particular site Zoma bikes about 10 minutes from Morgantown on a paved trail, but the last stretch he points his bike down a narrow, veiled path leading into dense, green bushes.

Zoma

Zoma is unassuming. He is lanky and tall – he stands almost 6 and a half feet. He has a gray goatee and a head full of salt and pepper hair. He typically wears a pair of jeans cut off at the knees, with a loose cotton T-shirt. 

Zoma near the banks of the Monongahela River. He has focused most of his cleaning to the Mon River and Deckers Creek. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Zoma is always observing. While he is cleaning up abandoned camps, he often thinks about who the people were, why they had the things they did.

“The human memories and such. There’s some reason people carried that object with them,” he says.

But it is also personal for him. In the past 10 years Zoma says he has lost 25 friends to drugs and suicide, and so cleaning these sites, where people were likely suffering from addiction, is a healing process.

“So to help I think erase that so it’s not out here is also a huge reason. Just try to clear it up. And I like these places,” Zoma says. “West Virginia is a beautiful place and it doesn’t deserve to be trashed this way.”

Zoma grew up on the West Coast, but he settled in Morgantown 21 years ago.

More Needles

Zoma has seen the city grow, and in the past couple of years he has noticed more trash, and a different kind of trash. 

“These sites used to be full of beer bottles, and the transition is now to needles,” Zoma says.

Hypodermic needles Zoma found along the Monongahela River. Zoma says he has noticed more needles at abandoned campsites in recent years. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

And this is a trend other organizations have noticed too, Jonathan Suite operations manager for Friends of Deckers Creek, says. Deckers Creek is an almost 25-mile-long tributary of the Monongahela River that flows through Morgantown. 

“We come in with tongs and a sharps container and get rid of them. They are definitely common and it’s really unfortunate,” Jonathon says.

Friends of Deckers Creek dedicates a lot of time to cleaning up trash along the waterway. Just a couple weeks ago Jonathan cleaned up a site with a mattress pad, clothing and blankets. He says the trash is a river ecosystem hazard.

“It’s bad for all the aquatic life in the creek. And when you have a clean area I feel like people are less likely to dump there, as opposed to if it’s already a really nasty, trash-filled area,” he says.

And that is Zoma’s thinking too. The first site he cleaned was in Morgantown at Whitmore Park last year. There were over 300 hypodermic needles, three tents, several futons and other trash completely covering the grass.

“I remember returning like two weeks later just hoping somebody else had cleaned this up and nobody had,” Zoma says.

The Clean-up Process

Zoma attached a small trailer to his bike – which he calls ‘Big Red’ – and loaded up shovels, rakes, garbage bags and a machete for the thick brush. He began cleaning Whitemore Park a year and a half ago.

Zoma’s bike ‘Big Red.’ He attaches a trailer to Big Red to bring supplies to and from trash cleanup sites. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We had to load stuff up on tarps to drag it out, like all the bedding. We couldn’t put that in bags, and we just made giant mounds of clothes. Mounds of clothes. It was amazing,” he says.

A lot of the sites Zoma cleans alone, but friends occasionally come and help haul the trash bags away. 

Zoma uses 33- and 55-gallon size trash bags. Just this year he has filled 100. 

He likes to document the sites, taking before and after photos and videos and posting them to Facebook.

Barbies, Teddy Bears, Chocolate Milk Bottles

Zoma especially likes to document sites when there is an excessive amount of trash or unique items left behind, which was the case with his most recent clean-up site.

It is still on the Monongahela River, and it is roughly the size of half a football field, with overgrown trees creating almost a roof. 

“Well this place is not perfect yet, but I tell you one thing is missing and that’s 25 bags of trash,” Zoma says.

There is still some work to do. But Zoma has gathered all the remaining trash into piles. 

Some trash left behind at an abandoned campsite along the Monongahela River. At this site, Zoma found 40 teddy bears. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

There is a Disney princess backpack, a Barbie with blonde hair, a chocolate milk bottle, Haines underwear and a moldy, medium-sized, brown teddy bear. 

“I’ll remove it sooner than later, or later than sooner. Not too sure,” he says.

There were 40 teddy bears that Zoma already threw out. 

Originally he had only found two hypodermic needles at this site, but as he is talking Zoma uses a stick to rustle around in the dead leaves. Ultimately he finds 18 needles within one square foot. 

Some of the teddy bears Zoma found. He says he likes to imagine why people had these things at one point in time. Credit: Zoma Archambault

“Well, so much for that,” he says.

Zoma uses the chocolate milk bottle to carry the needles out. 

Cleaning the Water

Primarily Zoma picks up trash on the banks of the rivers, but he does do some trash clean up in the water. He has focused mostly on Decker’s Creek.

“It amazes me just how shredded the plastic bags will be. It’s already working its way to be microplastic and it hasn’t even hit the major rivers yet,” Zoma says.

He has found bicycles, grocery carts, parts of bridges, furniture, old railroad ties and a lot of old coal slag.

Zoma uses a four-prong hook to pull out larger trash. The hook is about the size of a tennis ball. 

“It’s a grappling hook. It’s what I use to pull grocery carts out of the river,” he says.

But for smaller, magnetic trash, he uses a powerful magnet that is about the size of a grapefruit.

He walks along the banks of Decker’s Creek with the magnet. A big thunderhead is rolling in.

The magnet is attached to a long rope, which allows him to throw it in the river and reel it back in. Kind of like fishing.

“This is 65 feet of rope – I can throw the whole thing,” Zoma says.

Zoma tosses his magnet into Deckers Creek. He has pulled grocery carts, bikes, old railroad ties and coal slag out of the creek. Photo: Caitlin Tan/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The water is dark, and Zoma has cleaned up this location before. He does not expect to catch anything.

“There’s something on there. It’s a steel ring of some sort,” Zoma says.

He puts the little bit of slag and metal he finds in a yellow bucket. He’ll throw it out later. 

There are hundreds of miles of waterways just in Monongalia County. Trash could potentially be everywhere. Even the spots Zoma has cleaned, eventually get re-trashed — he says it is almost expected. 

But, standing back on the banks of the Monongahela River, at one of his cleanup sites, Zoma smiles, looking at a beach that was once covered in trash. He is proud of the work he has done. 

This story is part of a recent Inside Appalachia episode exploring some of Appalachia’s most unique destinations, on the water and beneath the water. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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