SHALLMAR -- Bill Ferry remembers when the brown sandstone rocks that protrude from the North Branch of the Potomac River near his secluded home here were colored red by the rushing water.
"I can remember that if you swam in the river and sat on the rocks, your bathing suit was ruined. It would turn red," said Mr. Ferry, a criminal investigator with the state's attorney's office in Garrett County. "That's how polluted the river was."
For decades, the North Branch has been a dead river, so 'D polluted by acid mine drainage that it was devoid of aquatic life. Now, state officials believe that its rebirth is near because of technological efforts unique in this country, but successful in Europe.
Their efforts to clean a 35-mile stretch of the picturesque river -- from its headwaters in West Virginia near Maryland's Backbone Mountain to the Jennings Randolph Dam at Garrett County's eastern end -- could mean stocking rainbow and brown trout there as soon as spring.
"The river is reborn," said Ken Pavol, a Department of Natural Resources freshwater fisheries biologist for Allegany and Garrett counties. "We're at a tremendous advantage because of that. I think people will use the river again because there [are] fish there. It's been dead for so long."
The rebirth of the North Branch, a river that begins 3,140 feet above sea level and flows northeast through some of the Appalachian Mountains' most rugged stretches, will bring more than environmental benefits to Western Maryland, some believe.
An economic boost
"It will bring a lot of people here," predicts state Del. George C. Edwards, a Garrett County Republican. "It will have a tremendous economic impact."
Bob Bachman, director of DNR's Fish, Heritage and Wildlife Division, envisions the North Branch as an "outstanding trout stream" that could rival Montana's Madison and Bighorn rivers in terms of fish size and natural beauty.
State officials believe a restored north branch also will attract hikers, campers and outdoors enthusiasts to the river, which, because of its polluted state, remains largely isolated from development and hidden among thick forests.
"Stretches of the river are every bit as isolated as rivers out West," Mr. Ferry said. "It's spectacular in places. It has some absolutely great pools of water and rapids."
The clear river looks pristine as it ripples along bends near places like Mr. Ferry's home. But the water is severely polluted, the victim of huge daily doses of acid mine drainage.
The drainage comes from 52 abandoned surface and deep coal mines in Maryland and West Virginia. About 118,000 pounds of )) acid seep from the mines into the North Branch each day.
DNR officials have compared the tainted water to battery acid -- acidic enough in some spots to dissolve metal over time.
Restoring the balance
To restore the river, the state began using in December 1992 the first technology of its kind in the United States -- machines that for years have been used to make dead lakes in Sweden live again. These machines, called lime dosers, are large, tower-like contraptions that dump crushed limestone into the water to neutralize acidic discharges.
"It works like a Rolaids tablet," said Mr. Pavol, while standing near one of the dosers at a stretch of the narrow river near Gorman. "It works instantly. But it will be several years before the river will resemble what it would be with quality water."
Dosers have been placed at four spots along the North Branch and its tributaries. The limestone will sufficiently neutralize the water to sustain fish and other aquatic life.
As the limestone works its way downstream, any residue will blend in with sediment and soil and become unnoticeable. It poses no problems for aquatic life.
The limestone is trucked in twice monthly from York, Pa. Two large, computerized dosers -- at Gorman and Laurel Run -- require 50 tons of limestone each month. Smaller, water-powered dosers at Kitzmiller and Lostland Run, a stream that feeds into the north branch, use about 25 tons every six months. The state pays $64 a ton.
State officials hope the dosers will enable them to match the success they have had in cleaning up the river downstream, below the Jennings Randolph Dam. Rainbow and brown trout stocked below the dam have thrived, and the brown trout are showing signs of reproduction.
Improvements due to dam
DNR officials credit the dam -- completed in 1982 -- with improving water quality downstream by allowing adjustments to the quantity of clean water released.
The lime dosers, DNR officials and others concede, however, are only an expedient solution.
"It's a really good thing, but it's really only a Band-Aid," said Curtis Dalpra, a public information officer with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin. "The minute you pull the dosers out, the river goes back to the way it was."
North Branch's troubles began around the 1900s, when coal mining became a prominent industry in Western Maryland and West Virginia. That was several decades before environmental laws required coal companies to reclaim mined land and treat discharged water.
Logging, development and industry -- primarily around Cumberland -- also played roles in the North Branch's decline in Western Maryland.
Acid mine drainage
Today, however, abandoned deep-mines that were running before World War II are the source of pollution. The worst offender is the Kempton mine on Laurel Run in southwestern Garrett County. Between 1.5 million and 3 million gallons of tainted water drain from the mine, which closed in 1949, each day.
Tony Abar, Maryland's Bureau of Mines director, said the state's efforts to restore the North Branch and other streams have been hindered by restrictions on how Maryland's share of federal dollars -- fees collected on each ton of coal mined -- can be spent.
Mr. Abar said Maryland receives about $2 million each year to reclaim abandoned mines and other projects. About $65,000 may be spent on environmental projects, such as water cleanup, he said.
More money will be needed for long-term solutions and to continue and expand the use of lime dosers, he said. Mr. Abar hopes that a measure sponsored by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, D-Maryland, which would increase the amount states may spend on environmental projects, will pass Congress. The bill would allow Maryland to spend $600,000.
"I'm personally frustrated that environmental groups and fishermen have not taken an interest in this in terms of trying to change [the law]," he said. "We all stand to benefit."
Before mining and other industries became prominent along the upper Potomac River, the North Branch was home to significant numbers of brook trout and other fish, aquatic organisms and insects. Otters, beavers and other small mammals were common.
Aiming for 90 percent
"I imagine it was one of the most beautiful rivers in North America," said Dr. Ray Morgan, an associate professor at the University of Maryland's Appalachian Environmental Laboratory in Frostburg. "It'll never come back to what the system was initially. The hope is that we can get it back to 90 percent of what it was."
Even that is more than many expected.
"You'd have to find people in their late 80s or early 90s to find anyone who could remember when there were trout in that river," Mr. Ferry said. "It's been that long. So you can see, it really is something to see the state fix that stream. A lot of these people, including me, never thought they'd see that happen."