Can Big Gas Help PA Clean Up Its Coal Mining Past?

  • Iron colors the minewater red at the Blue Valley AMD Treatment Center. Money from gas company withdrawals is helping keep the facility working. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • Bill Sabatose, president of the Toby Creek Watershed Association, at a mine drainage treatment facility in Elk County, Pa. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • After iron oxides and sulfates are taken out of the minewater, it is discharged into Brandy Camp Creek. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

June 13, 2014
First published December 13, 2013

This story is made possible with support from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds


Bill Sabatose grew up in the mine-pocked country around the town of Brockway, in northwestern Pennsylvania. He remembers the streams in the area were the color of rust.

"There wasn’t a fish within 100 miles," said Sabatose. Discharges from old abandoned mines coated the streambeds with iron and other pollutants.

As president of the Toby Creek Watershed Association, Sabatose has spent much of his life cleaning up the water in nearby streams.  In 2005, with help from a state grant, his group was able to build a treatment center that cleaned up the rust-colored discharge from a long-abandoned mine. The center cleans the water and releases it to Brandy Camp Creek, a tributary of the Clarion and Allegheny rivers. It also raises trout for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. 

But there was a problem—the group had found a way to build the plant—but Sabatose didn’t know how the group would find money to keep the plant running.

“It was scary because we didn’t have a plan,” said Sabatose, who is also a member of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission. “We were really struggling to pay electric bills—for a volunteer organization, that’s really hard to do.”

Then he found an unexpected ally—the natural gas industry.


Drillers use millions of gallons of water, along with sand and chemicals, to hydraulically fracture deep rock formations. Out of this “fracking” process, natural gas flows from the rock. Frackers typically use freshwater, but a few companies approached Sabatose with an idea. Could they use his cleaned up minewater?

“I thought there’s all this water, I thought we need more money to treat all of it.  I said ‘try it.’ And they tried it.”

The water worked. The gas companies paid Sabatose’s group for the water (technically the money is a donation). With the money it received, the group could treat more abandoned mine drainage(AMD).

The idea of using old minewater for fracking is picking up steam in Pennsylvania. State regulators are faced with a mammoth problem with old coal mines. There are thousands of these mines around the state. They fill with water, and the water picks up metals and other pollutants from the exposed rock. When that water gets into rivers and streams, it can kill off almost all aquatic life.

Eric Cavazza, Director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, said total costs to clean up the state’s mine-water have been estimated at between $5 and $15 billion. But with only about $30 million a year in funding to clean up AMD, the department is looking for other solutions.

One of these could be using AMD to frack wells for the natural gas industry. It would get water from mines out of rivers and streams and send it into fracked wells in the Marcellus shale, more than a mile below the surface.


Some companies have already started doing it—but others are balking.

Andrew Paterson of the Marcellus Shale Coalition says the issue is liability.

“It’s the ‘you touch it you own it’ concept,” said Paterson.

Companies are worried that they’d be held liable for the condition of the abandoned mine in perpetuity, even if they only used the water for a few months.

“It’s not clear on a state or federal basis that if you were to use that water, that by using it you have not inherited the long-term treatment of that source of water,” said Paterson.

Watershed groups like Sabatose’s don’t have to worry about this—state law protects them from lawsuits over the minewater they treat, because they’re considered good Samaritans. A bill being pushed by the industry and the DEP would add gas companies to that list of good Samaritans.

But some environmental groups oppose this move. Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper says these companies should not be considered good Samaritans.

Under the bill, companies wouldn’t have to clean up the minewater or buy it from groups like Sabatose’s. They could simply withdraw the water they need from a polluted mine.

“They’re not cleaning it up—they’re taking very polluted fluid and making it more polluted,” Carluccio said.

Still, others see this as a way to chip away with Pennsylvania’s daunting AMD problem.

Allowing frackers to use minewater keeps that water from polluting the rivers, said Radisav Vidic, an environmental engineer at the University of Pittsburgh who’s studying the use of AMD in fracking.

“AMD is already killing fish in the streams,” said Vidic. “If you take it out and prevent it from going into the streams. You can only make it better.  If we don’t use AMD for fracking (the companies) are going to use the surface water.”

The senate bill promoting the use AMD for fracking, SB 411, is unlikely to be voted on by the end of the year. Even if it passes, noone is predicting that fracking will solve the state’s abandoned minewater problem. At current funding levels, DEP officials estimate that cleanup of abandoned mines in Pennsylvania could take 50 years.