Watershed groups make headway against Indiana County mine drainage, but volunteers are needed

| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 11:50 p.m.

Public awareness and involvement are key to the success of most environmental efforts. To that end, Friends of the Parks and the Indiana County Conservation District recently presented a public program on the origins and treatment of abandoned mine drainage at the Waterworks Conservation Area.

The Waterworks reclamation area is located adjacent to Two Lick Creek south of Indiana. It serves as an example of efforts that are under way throughout the county to cleanse streams of the acidic seepage that is a legacy of the area's once-flourishing coal mining industry.

Adam Cotchen, program presenter and district manager for the Indiana County Conservation District, noted the 10-acre Waterworks Conservation Area is located at the former Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Company Lucerne 3A deep mine. The mine opened in 1907 and closed in 1967.

Prior to legislation enacted in 1977, Cotchen pointed out, coal companies could simply walk away from any environmental destruction that followed after they had stripped mines of coal. This happened all over Indiana County, he said, leaving acid mine drainage — evidenced by rust-colored (from iron) or milky white (aluminum) water — to destroy aquatic life and habitat in many area watersheds.

Due to recent efforts of numerous watershed groups in Indiana County, this sight is becoming much less common here, he said.

In 2000, the Waterworks site was donated to the county by Consol Energy. It was developed with help from the Indiana County Conservation District, state environmental officials and various community partners. The county has incorporated the site into its Parks and Trails system.

There are currently eight watershed restoration groups working in the county. That includes the Evergreen Conservancy and others that are devoted to particular bodies of water: Aultman Run, Blackleggs Creek, Black Lick Creek, Cowanshannock Creek, Crooked Creek, Little Mahoning and Roaring Run.

Anne Daymut, watershed coordinator with the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, said there are over 5,500 miles of stream in the state impacted by abandoned mine drainage. She said, “Indiana County is by far one of the best in dealing with this problem. The various watershed organizations have brought in countless state and federal dollars, and their efforts have greatly improved the quality of life for Indiana County residents.”

While Daymut said most of Indiana County's impaired watersheds have been tackled to one degree or another and a good percentage of the discharges are being treated with passive systems, they still require ongoing work and attention. Volunteers are always needed for routine operations, maintenance and eventual replacement of systems as they age over time, she said.

Daymut encouraged those interested in volunteering to contact a watershed group in their area. Indiana County's chapter of the Pennsylvania Senior Environmental Corp is another way for seniors to get involved, she said. The group meets at 9 a.m. the second Wednesday of each month in the Aging Services building at 1005 Oak St., Indiana. Anyone interested is welcome to attend a meeting, said John Dudash, an active member of the group. He added that representatives from various watershed groups and agencies come together at this meeting to share information and discuss projects.

Cotchen explained that acid mine drainage forms underground when pyrite (fool's gold) interacts with air in the tunnels and surface water that has seeped into a mine. He said this toxic mix can be mitigated through a variety of passive and active treatment systems.

The Waterworks Conservation Area has an active treatment system that uses a 75-ton lime dispenser near the mine portal to help neutralize acidity and remove metals. Powered by water flow, the dispenser dumps premeasured amounts of lime into the discharge stream at a set rate. The site also has a small holding pond that further reduces acidity before water enters Two Lick Creek.

The Waterworks lime dispenser uses 20 tons of lime per year at a cost of about $3,000. The lime must be shipped from West Virginia as Pennsylvania does not have the geology to produce the high quality of lime needed, said Cotchen. Money for the lime and other costs at the site come from a variety of sources, including state funding and grants. Sludge must be periodically sucked from the holding pond.

According to Cotchen, the acid mine drainage output at Waterworks ranges between 10 gallons per minute to over 300 gallons per minute, depending on the season. Mitigation efforts there annually remove approximately 30 tons of iron, aluminum and manganese.

During a testing demonstration, Cotchen sampled water at the mine's exit pipe where the pH was 2.99, well into the acidic range. After treatment with lime and time spent in the holding pond, the pH improved to 5.99, closer to the neutral value of 7.

Cotchen said the treatment system isn't perfect, but it's doing a good job making Two  Lick Creek habitable for fish — including a population of native brown trout living and spawning downstream of the treatment site. It's also becoming a waterway that is regularly enjoyed by canoeing and kayaking enthusiasts.

Ed Patterson, director of Indiana County Parks and Trails, noted the Waterworks Conservation Area includes a launch for canoes and kayaks, fishing access to Two Lick Creek, a wetlands walking trail, public restrooms and a 40-person pavilion that is available on a first-come, first-served basis. “I really encourage people to check out this great facility. Not many are aware of it,” he said.

More information about the site, including directions, can be found at www.indianacountyparks.org/parks/parks.html.

Brooke Esarey, a volunteer with the national VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, works full-time out of the Indiana County Conservation District office, providing assistance to the Evergreen Conservancy and Crooked Creek Watershed Association.

“Indiana County's active watershed groups are very passionate about maintaining the quality of watersheds. But, there's still work to be done in Indiana County,” she said. “Black Lick Creek is still an impaired watershed. And maintenance of established sites is always ongoing. People need to be rallied to generate support at the state level. They need to be active in contacting their local representatives to get funding for improvements.”

Art Grguric, director of the Blackleggs Creek Watershed Association and manager of its cooperative trout nursery, said his organization is within months of cleaning up the entire watershed — an area encompassing about 45 square miles. Grguric explained Blacklegs Creek has six major abandoned mine drainages and 52 minor drainages. The major drainages each discharge in excess of 1,000 gallons per minute. Flows from the smaller ones each range between 50 and 150 gallons per minute. He said these lesser drainages dry up during the summer and take care of themselves through dilution.

For the six larger mine drainages, a combination of active and passive treatment systems have been implemented. The Big Run No 3 site has an active system with a lime-dispensing silo, a settling pond and a wetland. The other five are treated passively, said Grguric.

Melissa Reckner, director of the Kiski-Conemaugh Stream Team, explained that a passive system is primarily one that uses only natural treatment methods. It uses no electricity and little manpower. Open limestone beds with a wetland are common passive systems. She said the wetland filters out metals and purifies the water even further. “They make great wildlife habitat, too,” she added.

Four of the Blacklegs Creek watershed sites use the limestone bed/wetland combination and a fifth uses an aeration system that puts more oxygen into the water, causing the iron to fall out, explained Grguric.

Grguric said he hopes to have the watershed's final treatment site completed in October. It was to have been ready in June, but progress has been slowed by wet weather, he said.

Since 1998, Grguric said, more than $3 million has been invested in reestablishing a healthy Blacklegs Creek watershed. Growing Greener, Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, Office of Surface Mines, Norfolk Southern Railroad, Army Corps of Engineers, the state Department of Environmental protection, and the Blackleggs Creek Watershed Association have all been significant financial contributors, said Grguric.

Grguric noted the watershed association's fish nursery releases about 15,000 trout into Blacklegs Creek each year. While he said he has plenty of help with the nursery, Ggruric said he could use help maintaining the watershed treatment sites. He said the systems occasionally need flushed and repaired due to erosion. There are always water samples to take, too.

Grguric said the Kolb discharge site, near Clarksburg, has some of the best fishing access on Blacklegs Creek. A memorial park, which is open to the public, has been built there and includes a swinging bridge, a pavilion, picnic tables and a camping area.

The Evergreen Conservancy oversees the Tanoma Wetlands, located in Rayne Township. This abandoned mine drainage treatment system is at the headwaters of Crooked Creek, a major tributary to the Allegheny River.

According to a recent press release, the conservancy is looking for volunteers to teach children at its Tanoma Abandoned Mine Drainage Wetlands Outdoor Classroom and other locations. Training is provided. Assistance with water monitoring duties such as installing water probes in streams, downloading and maintaining data from data loggers, and obtaining water samples is also needed. Call 724-471-6020 or 724-463-8138 for more information.

Pamela Sagely is a freelance writer.

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