- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

TABLE ROCK, Md. — The local Mettiki coal mine's owners are used to being called good neighbors, which is more than a little surprising when you consider how most coal mines rightfully or not are thought of as ecological disasters. But in the case of Mettiki Coal LLC, its office walls are covered with awards from sport fishing groups and learned fisheries scientists all because an employee had the bright idea to pump the water from naturally flooded mine shafts into a couple of holding ponds, stock them with trout, then prove to the world that the Mettiki mine water, at least, was good enough to drink.
"When we realized how consistently clean that water was, I started monitoring summer water temperatures and found oxygen levels quite high," said James C. Ashby, the manager of environmental affairs at Mettiki. "I thought we'd raise some trout in that water, let them grow awhile, then give them to the local farmers around here as a goodwill gesture."
After Ashby, a relaxed, easy-talking West Virginian, was stiffed by a private trout supplier, he got in touch with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and was promised 400 trout 200 rainbows, 200 brown trout. Mike Dean, the western Maryland trout production manager for the DNR, brought the fish to this largest coal mine in Maryland for a project that would be a first in the United States: the rearing of freshwater fish that, unlike catfish and carp, do not tolerate polluted water.
"I think Dean was a little leery at first, but once we got started he was a huge help," Ashby said. "Our project would never have gotten off the ground without him. You see, Mike began watching those fish because he wasn't sure they could survive in our mine water."
However, the water was clean and high in lime content absolutely essential for successful trout rearing and the Mettiki trout experiment went so well that the DNR became enthused with the entire project. Eventually, the state began to think of starting a cooperative effort that would help in its ongoing trout stocking program to benefit Maryland's sport anglers.
"This can only be described as a sweet deal for everybody the mine operator, the state and the fishing public," Bob Lunsford, the DNR's chief of freshwater fisheries, said as he stood on metal grating that surrounded various trout rearing pools at Mettiki recently. As large, powerful aerators infused fresh oxygen into the "cement ponds," automatic feeders occasionally sprayed specially formulated trout "chow" pellets across the water surface, and a veritable beehive of activity ensued as trout of all sizes devoured the food. The water boiled, with splashing and gurgling sounds the order of the moment.
"Some of the brown and rainbow trout in this section are monster-sized specimens," said Lunsford, pointing to a maelstrom of fish bodies, food pellets and bubbling water. As he shouted over the din of the aerators and the popping sounds of the feeders, large-bodied brown trout could be seen flitting about left and right, porpoising over one another. It was a sight that a visitor would not soon forget.
As the Mettiki trout program enters its eighth year, Ashby wore a well-deserved, satisfied smile. "Look, we have to pump out and treat the water anyway, along the way having to satisfy a slew of federal and state environmental regulations before we can discharge it into local waterways," he said. "So why not do this? Why not raise trout?"
Ashby, who has had some experience in trout propagation after a work stint in a federal hatchery many years ago, said, "I was never so proud as the day when I saw a young boy walk down a road here, carrying some fish on a stringer that most likely were raised at this cooperative trout-rearing facility."
Added Lunsford: "At one time or other most of the Garrett County streams are stocked with Mettiki trout."
Mettiki thus enjoys a public relations windfall in an age when the ecology movement in the United States views any industrial endeavor as harmful to our planet.
Good for Mettiki. Good for all of us.
Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday and Wednesday, and his Fishing Report every Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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