(This is the first in a series of stories we are doing to commemorate Rural Action’s 30th anniversary. If you would like to be interviewed or to provide an essay on your Rural Action experiences, please contact us.)
Mary Ann Borch is sitting on the porch of Rural Action’s Kuhre Center for Rural Renewal, fighting back tears as she reads a passage from a journal entry she made in 1994. Even now, 27 years later, the emotions run deep.
The details of the incident she’s recounting really don’t matter at this point. But at the time, when she was involved in a dispute with a colleague related to watershed restoration efforts, she was troubled and turned to her journal, which she uses to “express hard things, to work out emotional issues.”
Mary Ann is revisiting her journals because she’s been asked to reminisce about the early days of Rural Action, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Her reaction to that passage written almost 3 decades ago reveals much about the emotional investment the organization’s leaders have in their work — both then and now.
Today, Mary Ann serves as the chair of Rural Action’s Board of Directors. She came to the organization as a hydrogeologist, armed with technical knowledge of surface and groundwater. She was in the first group of AmeriCorps VISTAs at Rural Action and then moved to a paid position.
“I’m not really an activist,” says Mary Ann, who has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in hydrology from Ohio University. “I’m not a go-up-against-the-big-guns kind of person. I’m a technical person.” But it didn’t take her long to realize the watershed issues facing Southeast Ohio would benefit from the advocacy of the watershed groups, something she was familiar with from work she’d done in Columbus. Soon after Monday Creek got rolling, several other local groups sprang up.
A few initial meetings were held, and the group began to coalesce, but a key issue remained: Where to begin?
“We were scratching our heads and finally agreed to do this in Monday Creek,” she says. The reasoning was driven by proximity to potential local partners, facts, and the reality of the situation. The Wayne National Forest controlled a large percentage of the land in question, and Hocking College was next to Monday Creek, already working on mine reclamation. Ohio University had some initial studies in Monday Creek.
“We found out there were places that were not going to be able to be remediated,” she says. “There were too many bad sources of mine drainage to economically address their issues.” But those toxic places did not disqualify the entire watershed.
Before 1994, the Office of Surface Mining funded only grants addressing health and safety issues. But a rule change then occurred that permitted grants targeting water quality.
“That changed the game,” Mary Ann says.
In addition to the rule change, a bit of serendipity hit. Mary Ann attended a conference in Pennsylvania that offered step-by-step guidance on everything she needed to do — from starting a watershed group to identifying acid problems. It also addressed how to treat the water and get funding.
“It laid everything out for me, everything,” she says. “I went back to Rural Action on fire and applied for an EPA grant, which had just started to come out. I could ask for $600,000, so I wrote a grant and was able to get that amount awarded to us.”
The Monday Creek Restoration Project was off and running, with Mary Ann assuming the role of coordinator. The first big project was Rock Run, high up in the Monday Creek Watershed, between Shawnee and New Straitsville. It was the site where the coal company used to wash coal. “It was 40 acres of devastation, a black coal gob pile,” Mary Ann says.
The work was not without its challenges.
ODNR, Division of Mineral Resources put in 24 wells to gauge water quality and determine the depth- to- water of the coal waste. Vandals hit the site, smashing the portion of every well that stuck up out of the ground. “We were crestfallen,” Mary Ann says. But the location of all 24 wells was rediscovered and work continued. Another time, vandals hot-wired a bulldozer and a Caterpillar and drove them into the ponds on the site. Hocking College came to the rescue with heavy equipment that was able to pull the two machines out of the water.
Mary Ann becomes animated recounting these hurdles, able to laugh now at incidents that were incredibly frustrating three decades ago.
“Rock Run is a beautifully reclaimed site today,” she says. “There’s green grass everywhere. “The stream was moved from the coal waste area onto undisturbed ground.” Acid Mine Drainage is being neutralized by a SAPS, a successive alkaline producing system.
In the early days of Rural Action, “we were babes in the woods,” Mary Ann says. “We used to have VISTA volunteer meetings on mapping your community and how to talk with local people. We were just figuring it out. The office was at West Carpenter and North Lancaster in Athens and used to be part of a paper company. “It was an awful, tiny little square building with six or seven VISTAs sitting at a desk filled with clutter trying to start up new projects.”
She subsequently created an office in her home where she gathered with VISTAs to do Monday Creek watershed work.
“We had our cadre of smart and educated volunteers,” she says. They also had “the four Ms” – Mary Ann, Marsha Wickle from the Wayne National Forest, Mitch Farley of the ODNR Division Mineral Resource Management, and Mary Stoertz, an associate professor of Hydrogeology at Ohio University. They were each champions of the watershed work in their own way.
Nora Pons Honoree, who served as a VISTA in 1995-96, wanted to find a place for their office in the watershed and eventually found a spot in New Straitsville. “She made inroads with the local people and went out to meet our neighbors there,” Mary Ann says.
Mary Ann left Rural Action in 1997 to work for ODNR’s Division of Mineral Resources Management. “Not only could I remain in the area, but I was able to continue working with the watershed groups,” she says.
She joined the Rural Action Board of Directors two years after she retired in 2017.
“I was so impressed with the caliber of people on the board,” she says. “I’m not a business person. I came from a science background and state government. So I’ve been learning a lot. I’m blown away. Every month I leave here with my head reeling. Wow, I can’t believe all we’re doing!”