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Coal mine pollution disturbing creeks

| Sunday, May 13, 2012, 11:03 p.m.

HOMER CITY--Indiana County was once a great mining area, apparent by the mountains of coal refuse that dot the county's hillsides.

But the mines have created a disturbance in the area streams. A combination of acid mine drainage and untreated sanitary wastewaters have severely polluted the Blacklick Creek watershed.

The Blacklick Creek watershed stretches 420 miles across Indiana County and into Cambria County. Its major tributaries include Blacklick Creek, Two Lick Creek, Yellow Creek and Elk Creek, with all of them affected by the area's mine drainage.

According to the Blacklick Creek Watershed Association's literature, there are 300 surface coal mines, 170 coal refuse dumps and 200 miles of underground mines that are all contributors to the pollution of the watershed.

An average of 300,000 pounds of acid drain into the watershed daily from approximately 90 known sources.

Close to a dozen pollutants make up acid mine drainage, including sulfuric acid and dissolved metals of aluminum, iron and manganese.

The Watershed Association, with the help of numerous local partners, has taken steps to clean up the mine drainage from a few area sites.

By constructing water treatment systems close to sources from abandoned mines, the Association has engineered a way to catch acid mine drainage (AMD) before it reaches the streams.

This is done through a series of man-made treatment ponds. Two such treatment systems were installed on State Game Lands No. 273 along Rt. 954 close to Yellow Creek, called Yellow Creek Phases 1A and 1B.

AMD from abandoned mines above the creek flow down the hillside and into the two treatment systems.

The AMD first flows into a surge pond, then through a U-shaped wetland and into a treatment pond, called a "sulfate reducing bioreactor."

The bioreactor forces AMD to flow through a layered organic mixture of manure, limestone, hay and woodchips before exiting into a settling pond where reacted aluminum and iron are collected.

The treated water then exits through a wetland channel into a large polishing wetland area before entering Yellow Creek.

The entire area of systems 1A and 1B are contained within a dike to prevent inflow of Yellow Creek floodwaters.

Bob Eppley, president and technical director of the Blacklick Creek Watershed Association, said that the system has helped reduce contamination in the nearby Yellow Creek.

Before the Yellow Creek project was established, the Yellow Creek downstream from the Rt. 954 bridge was generally dead of aquatic life. Since the treatment system was installed three years ago, about 2,000 feet of stream has recovered about 50 percent and water quality has improved to the extent where stocked trout from upstream can survive at least until low water levels occur in summertime.

"That doesn't sound like much, but it's a start. But there's still pollutants coming in," added Eppley.

The area where the Yellow Creek Phases 1A and 1B projects were built was formerly a coal refuse dump and swamp area containing high levels of acid mine drainage.

Contractor and partner Britt Energies, Inc. removed the refuse dump and the contaminated swamp materials. The materials were combined with alkaline power plant ash and buried in clay pits on the Game Lands, with the assistance of equipment from Blairsville's 12th Congressional Region Equipment Center (12th REC).

"We had surplus military dump trucks running in up to six feet of mud and water, hauling out the swamp," Eppley claimed.

The treatment systems are designed to last up to 25 years, depending upon the quality of the AMD being treated. They may be rejuvenated by adding new manure to the organic layers.

The systems are not without problems, though. Both reactor ponds have had to be rebuilt during the three years of existence.

Extremely high acidic waters and animals have taken their toll. Muskrats and turtles burrowing into the treatment mixtures have caused holes where the water ran directly through without being treated. In the latest repairs, heavy plastic mesh materials have been laid on the inside banks of the ponds to discourage muskrat attacks.

The Yellow Creek Restoration Project, now in its second phase, contains three other treatment systems besides operating Phases 1A and 1B.

Phase 2A, located downstream, is currently in repair while Phases 2B and 2C are in construction.

The Phase 2C project caused some excitement recently when an unexpected mine opening was hit while tracing a large pipeline carrying AMD.

In a short time, the discharge went from about 150 gallons per minute to over 1,250 gallons per minute. Available pumps could not handle the flow, and work had to be halted while treatment designs were reconsidered.

Funding for the Yellow Creek Restoration Project has been received by the Blacklick Creek Watershed Association from Environmental Protection Agency 319 Non Point Source Program, the Western Pennsylvania Watershed Protection Program through Heinz Endowments, and from the current Pennsylvania Growing Greener Program.

The Growing Greener program has provided over $1.7 million in grants to the Association for the Yellow Creek and other projects.

"Growing Greener really helped us, because before, we were really scrambling for money," stated Eppley.

In addition to funding, the Blacklick Creek Watershed Association has received help in environmental efforts by many partners, including the Pa. State Game Commission, IUP, the Pa. Fish and Boat Commission, MidWest Generation, Reliant Energies, North Cambria Fuels and L.R. Kimball & Associates.

And although great progress has been made through these contributions, Eppley admits there's still much work to be done.

With over 88 AMD sources in the watershed area and only six of them remediated to date, "We still have a long way to go," he said. "The problem is the cost."

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