Mine drainage cleanup in Western Pa. an expensive, slow process

Brian Bowling
| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

In the half-mile that Millers Run flows around the Original Farmers Night Market on Parks Road in South Fayette, it changes from a clear stream with trout to an orange stream with virtually no life.

“Millers Run from here on down is pretty much gone, and the sludge is pretty deep,” said Steve Frank, president of the South Fayette Conservation Group, an all-volunteer nonprofit that has worked to restore the stream since 2002.

The main culprit in the stream's toxicity is the Gladden Discharge, a borehole that dumps more than 900 gallons of iron-laden water into Millers Run every minute.

A relic of unregulated coal mining, the Gladden Discharge, named for the community near it, is just one of hundreds — possibly thousands — of acid and alkaline mine discharges that pollute more than 5,500 miles of streams in Pennsylvania.

That figure equals about 1 mile out of every 15 miles of stream in the state, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Since Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, state and nonprofit groups have restored about 2,195 miles of streams polluted by mine drainage, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said.

Consequently, mine drainage has gone from being the largest source of stream pollution to the second largest, behind agriculture, in the past 35 years, state data on streams show.

But eliminating it isn't yet on the horizon.

“It's going to take a considerable amount of work, probably decades,” Sunday said.

The price tag is somewhere around $1 billion, according to DEP estimates.

The federal government provides much of the money available for mine drainage projects through a tax on coal production. In Pennsylvania, the other main source of funding has been Growing Greener grants, Sunday said.

The damage comes from underground pyrites around the coal seams that, when exposed to air and water, form iron oxides and usually acidic, but sometimes alkaline, water that pools in the mine until it finds a way to the surface.

“Basically, you have a lifeless stream, coated in iron and more acidic than vinegar,” said Andy McAllister, regional coordinator of the Greensburg-based Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

Little by little, the government and private mine reclamation projects are correcting that, he said.

Passive treatment systems use features like settling ponds and limestone beds to remove iron and neutralize acid. Active systems use aeration units and chemical treatments.

“You're seeing streams come back, especially in the past 10 to 15 years,” McAllister said.

Susan Huba, executive director of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association in Ligonier, said her group has taken care of mine drainage problems polluting the 2,500 miles of streams in the watershed, but the remaining few are unfixable.

The water pouring out of a mine portal behind the Crabtree Volunteer Fire Department in Salem, for example, won't yield to passive treatment because there's not enough available land.

“We would need about 40 acres of property to treat it passively,” she said.

While her group probably could get grants to build a $1.5 million active treatment system, it doesn't have the $50,000 a year needed to operate it, she said.

The South Fayette Conservation Group is taking a two-pronged approach to fix the Gladden Discharge, Frank said.

The first step is to stop water draining from Fishing Run into the Maud Mine off Route 50. The water then goes through the Pittsburgh Coal Co. Montour No. 2 mine before draining into the Gladden Discharge.

To stop the flow, Fishing Run's stream bed would be lined with concrete.

“Basically, if we keep the water on the surface, it will reduce the discharge,” he said.

The second prong is to pump water from the mine pool to an active treatment system the group plans to build behind the farmers market.

If successful, the Gladden Discharge would stop emitting water, and Millers Run would run clean down to Chartiers Creek, he said.

“It would open it up for recreation,” Frank said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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