The Potomac River and Coal River have been named among the nation's top 10 most endangered rivers by American Rivers.
"This year's Most Endangered Rivers list underscores how important clean water is to our drinking water, health and economy," said Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers said on releasing America's Most Endangered Rivers 2012 on May 15.
The nonprofit American Rivers has publicized lists of most endangered rivers each year since 1986. Rivers are chosen based on upcoming decisions that will affect the their fates, according to the organization.
In 2012, the Potomac River is considered the most endangered river in the country, threatened by urban and agricultural pollution. Its headwaters lie, in part, in West Virginia.
As the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act is celebrated this year, the Potomac — "the nation's river" — is threatened by federal legislation that would weaken the Clean Water Act, the organization said. Congress also needs to fund the Environmental Protection Agency to implement the Chesapeake Bay clean-up plan; the Potomac is the bay's second-largest tributary.
The Coal River, a tributary of the Kanawha River, appears as No. 9 in the report.
The 88-mile-long Coal River is West Virginia's second-longest river, according to American Rivers. It is prized for fishing, canoeing and kayaking, and the river appears on the National Register of Historic Places.
However, American Rivers says mountaintop mining and valley fills are changing the river's drainage, thus making it one of the nation's endangered waterways.
About 20 percent of the watershed has been permitted for coal mining, and one-third of that area has already been mined, according to the report.
More than 100 miles of headwater streams have been filled with overburden, with more than 50 additional miles proposed to be buried, the organization said.
Four Alpha Natural Resources projects are in various stages of permitting for a large area of Coal River Mountain, one of the watershed's last mostly intact ridges.
"If all of these permits were to be approved and mined, it would be roughly 5,000 acres contiguous mine," said Mathew Louis-Rosenberg of the citizens' group Coal River Mountain Watch.
For now, reduced coal markets have postponed those plans.
The only actively mined section so far was the Bee Tree mine, of which Rosenberg said perhaps 75 of 1,000 acres had been mined.
Last Friday, Alpha announced that it would idle that mine, along with the Twilight mine in another part of the Coal River drainage, due to soft coal markets.
Also on Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would appeal to defend its rescinsion of the permit for Arch Coal Co.'s Spruce Fork No. 1 mine, another large mine within the Coal River watershed.
"Those announcements have bought us time to save Coal River Mountain and protect Coal River, so we can begin to move into the work of restoring the health of the river, restoring the ecosystems and trying to restore the health of these communities," Louis-Rosenberg said.
Permitting for surface mines and for valley fills across central Appalachia is the subject of regulatory and legal wrangling among the federal and state agencies involved.
West Virginia rivers appearing on the most endangered list in the past decade include the Gauley River for mountaintop mining and the Monongahela River for natural gas extraction, both in 2010; the Shenandoah River in 2006 for stresses related to rapid population growth; and the Monongahela River in 2004 for polluted mine drainage.
America's Most Endangered Rivers 2012 may be downloaded from the organization's website.