June 13, 2014
First published December 6, 2013
This story is made possible with support from the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds
For years, most coal mining took place deep underground, but Pennsylvania's mining history is easy to spot when you look at the state's waterways. Orange-colored streams have been commonplace for decades. But slowly, more of those streams are running clear again, making them healthy for fish, and other wildlife. It's not happening on its own. One innovative cleanup project is bringing together watershed advocates, regulators, and a mining company.
As a tomboy growing up in the 1980s, Melissa Reckner remembers crawling in the waterways near her home in Hollsopple, in Somerset County.
“I very distinctly remember, now I know it’s iron, I didn’t know that’s what the orange stuff was then, but getting that, and black goo under my finger nails. Unfortunately, that was probably sewage. We were kids, we didn’t know any better.”
But one small stream behind her house ran clean. There were crayfish and other life. So she wondered about the dead, orange colored water and black goo.
“You know, my mom said, it’s just a bigger problem. And as one person, you didn't feel there was anything you could do about it.”
Today Reckner is director of the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team, a watershed group in Somerset county. The state has 5,500 miles of polluted streams. And along with many other people, she is trying to do something about it.
The problem largely comes from abandoned coal mines. When water moves through a mine, it picks up the heavy metals and becomes acidic. That acid mine drainage, known as AMD, creates the orange coloring in the streams and rivers.
You might expect the companies that created the problems to be responsible for clean up. But John Stefanko says that’s not the case. He’s deputy director for mine operations with the Department of Environmental Protection.
"Companies would come in, mine the coal, they would earn their profits, and then they would disappear. There was no program in place that would provide assurances that if they did cause pollutional problems there would there would be monies to prevent the problem or correct the problem."
But now, after decades of abandonment, at least one coal company is footing the bill to clean a small stream called Topper Run. Acidic water drains from an old mine into the Run.
Stefanko says there’s still coal deep in that mine, and the Rosebud Mining Company wants access to it. But the laws have changed, and companies face more regulation. To get to the 10-thousand acres of coal reserves by Topper Run, Rosebud would need to clean up at least some of the legacy left by its predecessors.
So, the company offered to build a $15 million water treatment plant—something Stefanko says the state could not afford to do.
"They were willing to basically build a facility, a $15 million dollar facility, they will operate and maintain for about thirty years, which is roughly the life of the mining operation."
During that 30 years, Stefanko says Rosebud has agreed to build a trust fund, so the state has money to maintain the treatment plant once Rosebud relinquishes ownership.
Melissa Reckner of the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team had her supporters write the DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in support of the plan.
“Absolutely, why not? I mean, how often do you have a private company pony up that amount money to treat these problems, that are legacy problems that really have no - they’re not responsible for those discharges,” she says.
Reckner says Topper Run, also known as the St. Michael's discharge, is known as one of the “Super 7”—because it's one of the seven major mine discharges into the Kiski-Conemaugh watershed.
"And just by treating the Topper Run, or St. Michael's discharge, that is removing anywhere between 30 and 40 percent of the pollution load into the Little Conemaugh."
And by cleaning the Little Conemaugh, Reckner says the project will help more than ten miles of the Conemaugh River, which leads to the Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers, as the water moves downstream into Pittsburgh.
After five years, the deal got state and federal approval late last year.
The DEP’s John Stefanko takes me to St. Michaels in Cambria County. We’re standing above the newly built water treatment plant. Stefanko says it’s a success story.
“It’s a water treatment plant. But it is one of the largest in Pennsylvania, if not the largest in Pennsylvania, of this type of treatment system.”
To access coal reserves, Rosebud needs to pump less than 5,000 gallons of water per minute out of the mine. But the company agreed to pump and treat twice that, to help with water clean up efforts.
Within weeks of the plant beginning operations last summer, the Little Conemaugh River went from orange, to nearly clear. Melissa Reckner says she heard people talking about it while attending the popular Flood City Music Festival.
"Just hearing that, I went down through Johnstown, and of course my heart soared because I'm like oh my God, look at this, it looks fantastic."
Standing on a bridge over the Little Conemaugh, John Stefanko looks at the water. He’s brought back to the orange waters of his youth, compared with the clear running stream he sees today.
“It kind of gets to you. It also makes you feel like, wow, I helped make this happen. I was a small piece of a lot of other people that did it. But to think I had a part in this, it makes you tingly, and it makes you wow, and shows anybody can make a definite impact on improving your environment.”
Stefanko says now that the Rosebud deal is in place, other mining companies are stepping forward—they also want to mine deeper into coal reserves while helping to reduce the legacy of acid mine drainage.