Duff Run Creek in Penn Hills contaminated by aluminum
By Brad Pedersen and Patrick Varine
Published: Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 6:46 p.m.
Business owners along Rodi Road have a problem with Duff Run Creek in Penn Hills because of flooding issues.
Pennsylvania environmental officials have a different problem with it: a stretch of the small stream along lower Rodi Road is an unnatural, bright-blue color.
Duff Run's discoloration is the result of aluminum discharge from an abandoned mine, said John Poister, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection's Southwest Regional office.
Poister said there are a “vast number” of abandoned mines discharging into streams in Pennsylvania.
“We have literally thousands of miles of creek that have been affected by acid mine drainage,” he said.
Duff Run was the subject of a 2003 study undertaken by Monroeville officials when they received a grant to assess mine discharges within the Thompson Run Watershed. The study found two significant discharges into Duff Run, both with elevated aluminum concentrations that give the water a distinct bluish-white color.
Poister said the discharges come mainly from abandoned coal-seam deep mines last worked in the 1920s.
Aluminum is the most common metal found in the Earth's crust, said Diane Selvaggio, the former executive director for the defunct Turtle Creek Watershed Association.
When aluminum mixes with the water, it often changes its color to a milky white, blue or green, Selvaggio said.
“The aluminum is most dangerous to fish and other stream creatures when it is completely dissolved, even when the water looks clear,” Selvaggio said. “Trout, for example, will suffer serious gill damage.”
The Turtle Creek Watershed Association, funded by Duquesne University, closed after the university stopped providing funding, Selvaggio said.
Perhaps the most dramatic local example of mine discharge is Brush Creek where it runs through Irwin.
It's not difficult to find anglers fishing for carp, catfish and other fish along the creek between Manor and Jeannette.
But just upstream, the banks are empty and very few — if any — fish claim residency where Brush Creek suddenly turns a dull, rusty orange color.
“The whole way down, there is wildlife, like deer, skunks and raccoons, and fish in Brush Creek where it goes through west Jeannette and Manor,” said Sam Petrill, a member of the Irwin Sportsmen's Association. “But in Irwin, the water in Brush Creek is shallow and, at times, very orange.
“Some fish can adapt and survive, but I would not advise going there as a fishing destination.”
Brush Creek's rusty hue can be attributed to drainage from an old, abandoned coal mine, Selvaggio said. The discoloration comes from pyrite deposits, which are a mixture of iron and sulfur, dissolving and leaking into the creek, making it acidic, Selvaggio said.
“The sulfur combines with hydrogen and oxygen ions from the water and forms a weak version of sulfuric acid,” Selvaggio said. “The periodic introductions of mine water change the stream chemistry, and sometimes the appearance of stream water,” Selvaggio said.
Poister said Brush Creek in Irwin has been a problem for DEP for quite some time, estimating that iron and sulfur have been discharging into the creek for the past 30 years.
“That part of the creek has been running orange for a long time,” he said.
Pennsylvania has more environmental issues tied to mining and abandoned mines than any other state in the U.S., said Andy McAllister, regional coordinator for the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
“The entire state has about 4,000 miles of streams impaired by abandoned mine drainage,” he said.
McAllister said southwestern Pennsylvania is riddled with underground coal mines, which are a byproduct of the steel industry.
“They needed the coke from coal, and Pennsylvania served as ground-zero for that development,” he said. “Years ago, they didn't have environmental regulations like we have nowadays, and when they were done with a mine, they would just walk away and leave it as it was.”
The region has a high concentration of pyrite, a soft mineral known as fool's gold, along several of its coal seams, McAllister said. When water runs across the coal seams and pyrite, it creates an acidic iron mixture, which mixes with rain and ground water, McAllister said.
“When water fills up the mine, that mixture finds its way out,” he said. “When it's exposed to oxygen, it causes the orange color.”
Pyrite, along with aluminum and manganese, cause water contamination, McAllister said.
Although Brush Creek and Duff Run Creek are discolored, mine drainage does not always discolor the water, Selvaggio said.
Sometimes contaminants, including aluminum, will look transparent in the water, but still produce a detrimental effect on the local ecosystem.
“The streams will be nearly devoid of living things, with one exception — long, long strands of bright green algae, which gives a clue that mine drainage is present,” Selvaggio said.
Poister said mining companies have set up trust companies and they pay a tax on every ton of coal that's mined; the money goes toward remediation, “but again, it's a big, big job and we do what we can.”
Kevin Sunday, deputy press secretary for DEP's Office of Communications, said state officials are working to identify a solution for Brush Creek, and regarding Duff Run Creek, “will take the necessary steps to correct the problem as we continue to monitor the situation.”
Poister said the state has no immediate plans to either treat or collect the discharges.
“Space is limited for treatment due to the residential and commercial development in the watershed,” he said.
Penn Hills Planning Director Howard Davidson said municipal officials have applied twice to try and secure funding through Allegheny County's Community Infrastructure and Tourism Fund to fix Duff Run, but have been turned down.
“We'll keep applying,” Davidson said.
Both waterways contribute to the Turtle Creek Watershed. which eventually feeds into the Monongahela River, Selvaggio said.
Pennsylvania-American Drinking Water takes in drinking water from the Monongahela River, but is able to filter it out, making it safely consumable, she added.
“The mine drainage reaches the river in a fairly diluted form, and they have a pretty good filtration system that takes care of all of it,” Selvaggio said. “There are no worries with their water, but if I had a well that might be exposed to some of the drainage, I'd make sure to have it tested.”
Brad Pedersen is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8626, or email@example.com. Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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