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Mine site offers lesson to Cal U students

Joe Napsha
| Saturday, May 31, 2014, 5:06 p.m.
Dr. Robert Whyte, professor and chair of the California University of Pennsylvania Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, said a group of Cal U students will help him with his floristic assessment of plants that are growing at the abandoned mine drainage treatment system in Lowber.
Dr. Robert Whyte, professor and chair of the California University of Pennsylvania Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, said a group of Cal U students will help him with his floristic assessment of plants that are growing at the abandoned mine drainage treatment system in Lowber.

Students from Cal U are scheduled to work this summer at the abandoned mine drainage treatment system in Lowber, learning about the plant life that is growing around a series of six settling ponds and a wetland, all of which act as filters to remove pollutants from the water.

Robert Whyte, professor and chairman of Cal U's biology and environmental sciences department, said a group of students will help him with his floristic assessment of plants that are growing around the treatment site. The study will look at what plants should be in that area and which plants are invasive, Whyte said.

“You want it as natural as possible. You want to have a good functioning system,” Whyte said.

The Sewickley Creek Watershed Association's $1.3 million mine drainage treatment system that was built in 2006 along Lowber Road in Sewickley Township has become an educational site as well as a place where polluted water pouring out of the flooded Marchand mine is treated. Most of the orange-colored iron oxide drops to the bottom of the settling ponds before moving through a constructed wetland on its path to nearby Sewickley Creek, said Thomas Keller, executive director of the watershed association.

The watershed association sees the value of the opening the Lowber site to area schools and colleges as an outdoor laboratory where students can learn about the effects of water pollution, as well as the plants and animals supported by the environment of the treatment system.

“We wanted to get several universities involved in our project. Our ultimate goal is that we want the college students working side by side with the high school students” in the region, said Thomas Keller, executive director of the watershed association, a Youngwood-based nonprofit.

The association has formed partnerships with the chemistry and biology departments of University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and California University of Pennsylvania, which has allowed for faculty and student scientific research projects.

Cal U students also have worked at the watershed association's mine drainage treatment site at Brinkerton in Hempfield Township.

The nonprofit association said the Cal U students will be conducting a comprehensive inventory of the vegetation along the Brinkerton site, taking stock of the species, their abundance and location. They are expected to use global positioning and global information systems to produce a map of the vegetation. The goal is to document any areas where the vegetation might interfere with the integrity of the levees.

The site affords the Pitt-Greensburg students the opportunity to do experiential learning, said Sharon P. Smith, president of Pitt-Greensburg.

“It's real learning ... not just in the classroom. It's actually doing it,” Smith said.

Eric Deihl, a chemistry major at the Pitt-Greensburg campus, plans to conduct his senior capstone project at the mine drainage treatment site.

“I've driven by this (settling ponds) and never knew what it was,” said Deihl, a Hunker native who plans to attend graduate school after graduating next year.

Deihl plans to take water that has been treated after flowing through five settling ponds at the mine drainage treatment system and irrigate sunflowers, tomatoes and lettuce he intends to grow this summer in a fenced-in area on one of the levees. After harvesting the plants, he will use acids to break down the plants so he can test the effect of the mine water on those plants.

For the past few years, several students from the Pitt-Greensburg campus have been conducting water quality research at the site, as well as upstream and downstream of the treatment system, to determine the efficiency of the treatment system and the overall quality of the stream, said Larry D. Myers of Hempfield, the watershed association's treasurer.

It takes about 90 hours – almost four days – for the water pouring out of the old mine shaft at a rate of 1,800 gallons a minute, to make its journey through the treatment area. Most of the iron oxide in the water falls to the bottom of the first of six large settling ponds, Keller said. The water that flows from the wetland area into the Sewickley Creek is pure enough to allow for trout stocking in the creek.

To accommodate the students who will be studying and conducting research at the mine drainage treatment site, the watershed association wants to build a 20-foot-by-40-foot pavilion so the students could have a shelter when they could conduct their experiments and use their computers, Keller said.

The association is attempting to make the Lowber mine drainage treatment system self-sufficient by selling the orangeish iron oxide to a pigment company, said Robert S. Hedin, president of Iron Oxide Recovery Inc. of Mt. Lebanon, who serves as a consultant to the association and helped to design the treatment system.

“This (closed mine) will make iron oxide longer than any of our lives will last,” Hedin said as he stood atop one of about 10 black fabric filters containing tons of iron oxide.

The association sold about 700 tons of the iron oxide prior to the recession, but only about 300 tons of the 1,000 tons the mine has produced in the intervening years, Hedin said.

“We need to sell a lot more,” Hedin said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or

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