Kiski, Conemaugh controls on mine runoff failing
One treatment system for acid mine drainage into the Kiski River magically changed the water from crimson-orange to blue-green.
Now, the treatment ponds in the Booker system in Parks Township, which channels water to Carnahan Run and then to the Kiski River, are clogged with iron-laden sediment.
After years of success in cleaning up the Kiski and Conemaugh rivers and other waterways, pollution treatment systems are failing and fewer volunteers are working to maintain them — and this is starting to turn back the progress made, according to an expansive four-year study.
In its State of the Kiski-Conemaugh River Watershed, the Conemaugh Valley Conservancy documented water quality improvements and challenges in the watershed covering parts of Armstrong, Cambria, Indiana, Somerset and Westmoreland counties.
“No doubt we have come a long way, but we are at a tipping point if we don't maintain the existing (acid mine drainage) treatment systems,” said Melissa Reckner, Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team director and author of the study.
About two-thirds of the 60 acid mine drainage water treatment systems — almost all of them passive — need maintenance ranging from minor items to complete rehabilitations or expansions, said Tim Danehy, a scientist with Stream Restoration Inc. of Mars and co-author of the 2017 report Kiski-Conemaugh Basin Treatment System O&M Assessment.
“This is environmental infrastructure, just like roads and bridges,” Danehy said. “It requires ongoing upkeep.”
Volunteer watershed groups responsible for raising money and securing grants for these systems have been awarded in excess of $1 million in the last several years for various rehabilitations of those systems.
Still, the news is good. The extensive study documents many streams and rivers that have moved from fish-poor to fish-rich.
Only one frog and no fish were found at the mouth of the Kiski River in Gilpin in a 1980 state survey, for example. A repeat of the survey in 2015 by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission tallied 386 individual fish and 28 species.
Additionally, the survey turned up at least two pollution-sensitive fish species — mooneye and brook silverside — that were collected for the first time in the Kiski.
Water quality improvement was evident for the Conemaugh River, which in 1993 had a pH level of 4.8 in Blairsville. A pH level between 5 and 8 is necessary for aquatic life to survive.
In 2017, the pH of the Conemaugh River in Blairsville increased to a much healthier 7.8.
Fish species have rebounded in the Conemaugh. Just before the confluence of the Conemaugh River and Loyalhanna Creek that forms the Kiski River near Saltsburg, 13 fish species were documented in 2015, a nice jump from the eight species collected in 1997.
But resources — that is, volunteers and money — responsible for turning the often lifeless orange-stained waters into kayaking destinations aren't standing at the ready as they were a decade or so ago, Reckner said.
Shuttered deep coal mines release iron and other contaminants into waterways, changing the pH levels of the water and killing aquatic life.
Passive acid mine treatment systems work by settling out the metals from mine water by diverting it to a series of ponds, before its released to the river.
“Back in the 1990s, (acid mine drainage) treatment was pretty new,” Reckner said. “We learned a lot over the years and some of those initial systems are undersized.”
Plus, they have relatively short life spans — about 20 years.
“These passive systems require more maintenance than people had hoped,” Reckner said.
For example, iron can cake and overtake the ponds, and they then require dredging.
There is a statewide issue with acid mine drainage treatment systems, including some of the 300 government-financed systems in the state, said Lauren Fraley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
When the systems came onto the scene about 25 years ago, there “wasn't much information available on how well passive systems could treat significantly polluted or chemically impaired water or the lifespan of these systems,” she said.
And many of those systems were “constructed without long-term maintenance funding available,” Fraley said. DEP has grants available to update them, she added.
The systems need to be cleaned or revamped and that will take time and money, both of which are lacking, according to John Linkes, of Leechburg, a volunteer active in the Roaring Run and Kiskiminetas River watershed associations.
The Kiski-Conemaugh study found that of the 12 volunteer watershed groups that once operated in the basin, two now are defunct from a lack of interest and membership has dropped or remained about the same in seven of the groups.
“We need fresh ideas and new blood,” Linkes said. “I'm not getting any younger at 66.
“I'm a child of the '60s and everybody cared about the environment, but more families are doing their own things and there's been a lack of interest from the younger crowd.”
People are busier these days and retiring later, he said, but efforts need to be ramped up to find people who have time and “want to do something for their community, even if they give a little bit.”