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Grant to help fund mine drainage cleanup in Sewickley Township

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

Pennsylvania has the most abandoned mine problems of any state in the country, but a state grant program hopes to fix some of those in Sewickley Township.

“When you think of our history of steel and coal and coke, Pennsylvania was it,” said Andy McAllister, regional coordinator for Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

Sewickley Creek Watershed Association was awarded $182,782 through the state Department of Environmental Protection's Growing Greener program in February.

The money will be used to create a passive treatment system for Andrews Run, a small stream­ — narrow enough to jump across — that is a tributary of Little Sewickley Creek stretching from Wendel in Hempfield behind Herminie Wendel Road and meeting the larger creek outside Herminie.

“It's a small tributary, but mining has polluted it,” said project manager Robert Hedin.

As the creek flows into Little Sewickley Creek, then Sewickley Creek, it carries iron oxide and manganese that have been deposited upstream.

Funds come from forfeited bonds after companies actively mining between 1982 and 2001 have paid the state for neglecting to return their sites to an agreed environmental state.

Of the $18.7 million from various sources that will be dedicated to watershed projects this year by the DEP, the Jacobs Creek Watershed Association based in Mt. Pleasant will also receive $624,551 for three different projects.

“We're definitely making a difference in putting the land back and making the water better and cleaning up the streams,” said Ron Horansky, DEP watershed manager for the Greensburg district mining office. “It falls back on the state's responsibility to make sure these discharges are treated.”

The office, which oversees seven counties in southwestern Pennsylvania, is currently working on 10 sites polluted by mine discharge and eight sites in need of land reclamation.

More than 4,000 miles of impaired streams and 185,000 acres of abandoned mine land exist throughout Pennsylvania, McAllister said.

That amounts to a $15 billion problem that can't be faced alone, so non-profits partner with state agencies and federal offices, he said.

Hedin said the Andrews Run project will feature lagoons similar to but smaller than the Sewickley Creek site near Lowber. Two beds of limestone along with ponds and wetlands will filter out the chemical compound deposits.

While active, companies pump out groundwater that seeps into the mines, but when operations cease, the groundwater fills up the mine and finds its way out through an opening, McAllister said.

The water reacts with iron pyrite, which, when exposed to air and water, creates a reaction leaving sulfuric acid and iron oxide, which has an orange color.

“It's a very normal, natural reaction that occurs and unfortunately, because we disturbed that environment, we accelerated that process,” he said.

The project in Lowber removes 99 percent of the iron oxide from the water and now supports trout, but didn't before it was begun in 2006 when one ton per day of the compound was being sent downstream into the Youghiogheny River.

Hedin dredged three of the six ponds there for iron oxide last summer, which will be dried, sold and used as pigment.

After final plans are approved by the watershed organization, bids for the project's construction and monitoring will be solicited, with construction in the fall, Hedin said, adding that it should definitely be completed by the end of next summer.

Sewickley Township Watershed Association, organized by volunteers, should be commended for its efforts, McAllister said.

“It makes us all feel good, they're the good neighbors,” he said.

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at sfederoff@tribweb.com or 724-836-6660.

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