In dozens of old coal mining towns in Pennsylvania and Western Maryland, black dust swirling off of naked piles of coal waste — called “bony piles” — forces people to hose off their houses and breathe polluted air. It’s been that way for so long that many people did not expect anything to change.

“Government did not have the resources to clean up the bony piles, and a lot of us thought they would be permanent parts of our communities,” said Andy McAllister, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

Sharing the landscape are thousands of miles of brightly colored streams infused with acid mine drainage, where you don’t go swimming without coming out orange or red. “Back when I was a kid, you wouldn’t even want to wade in it, not if you wanted to keep your shoes,” recalled an elderly Garrett County, MD, resident.

That is the legacy of unfettered coal mining in a significant chunk of the Bay drainage basin. West Virginia and Virginia have abandoned coal mining issues, too, but few are located in the Bay watershed.

Coal waste pile in PA

A mountain of waste coal stands at the edge of a coal-company town in western Pennsylvania. (Western PA Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation)

Officials say considerable progress has been made toward erasing the environmental, safety and aesthetic problems from abandoned mine land in the Pennsylvania and Maryland since cleanup began more than 40 years ago.

Together, the two states, federal government, groups and coal companies have laboriously removed those scars from more than 94,000 acres, largely through $1.6 billion in aid from fees placed on each ton of coal mined in the United States. Officials from the states say many of the very worst threats have been tackled.

Still, 1,794 miles of streams in Pennsylvania that drain into the Chesapeake Bay have the pH of vinegar and are lifeless, devoid of the fish and aquatic insects that build a healthy ecosystem.

In Western Maryland, an estimated 127 miles of otherwise high-quality streams are polluted by abandoned acid mine drainage.

The remaining workload is huge, and the future of its major funding stream — the Abandoned Mine Land Fund — is threatened. That federal initiative, which has funded the bulk of the cleanup since 1977, faces expiration later this year, and reauthorization by Congress is not certain. Even if renewed, the fee placed on each ton of coal for cleanups could be reduced to aid the faltering coal industry.

Whether the federal program continues, the use of coal in the United States continues to decline. That means less money being paid into the mandatory fund. It also means that more coal companies may go bankrupt, forfeiting environmental bonds or finding themselves unable to remediate abandoned mine land when they re-mine old sites with mechanized equipment.

Still a threat

Pennsylvania has the most abandoned mine land in the nation and about one-third of all such land in the United States. Statewide, there are as many as 300,000 acres of abandoned coal lands, pocked with waste piles, mine shafts and unreclaimed surface mine land in 45 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. More than 800 piles of coal waste surround coal towns, devoid of vegetation, blowing a pesky black film on buildings and polluting the air and local streams.

Acid mine drainage from pipe in PA

Acid mine discharge, as shown here in central Pennsylvania, still colors and makes lifeless approximately 2,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams and 147 miles of Maryland streams that flow toward the Chesapeake Bay. (PA Department of Environmental Protection)

In Pennsylvania, acid mine drainage is just behind agriculture runoff as the top source of water pollution.

Acid mine drainage is usually formed when pyrite, a molecule of iron, and sulfur, commonly found in coal, combine with oxygen and water to produce sulfuric acid, leaving a yellow or red precipitate on streambed rocks. Sometimes aluminum dominates, and waters may begin clear but are equally toxic. In all, approximately 26 kinds of heavy metals can be released.

The drainage flows from open mines and from “blowouts” from thousands of miles of sealed mine tunnels.

Each year, Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation has to come to the rescue of people whose homes have listed into caved-in mines. And each year, the agency has to build new water sources for homeowners or communities whose drinking water becomes tainted by acid mine drainage. Of the bureau’s 127 reclamation projects in 2020, 54 were classified as emergencies.

For larger communities, acid mine drainage drives up the cost of water treatment.

In two western Pennsylvania counties studied between 2013 and 2017, underground mining caused streambeds to fracture and drain water 60 times on 46 streams. The beds were grouted or lined with plastic as temporary fixes.

The Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation estimates it would take $15 billion and 105 years at the current rate to clean up the abandoned mine sites statewide. That includes 840 coal waste piles and 5,500 miles of streams rendered lifeless by acid mine drainage, as well as safety issues such as open mine shafts, exposed highwalls, mine portals and landslides. Two thousand miles of those polluted streams drain into the Chesapeake Bay.

Pennsylvania also has about 40 active mine fires, where coal seams burn underground. Of the $65 million budget to address abandoned mine land in the state in 2020, $16.5 million went to extinguishing a 14-year-old underground mine fire that was causing local pollution problems.

Coal-clogged stream, PA

Coal waste escaping from a refuse pile in northeastern Pennsylvania chokes a creek. The source of the pollution has since been cleaned up. (PA Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation)

The most infamous and eerie example of smoldering coal mines is in Centralia, where an underground fire, burning since 1962, has slowly emptied a borough of more than 1,000 people down to five homes. All of the other homes were bulldozed.

The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission says there are 5,166 miles of streams that cannot support fish because of acid mine drainage. If healthy, many of them could support robust trout populations. The agency put a price tag on that lost recreational value: $29 million a year.

Maryland’s Abandoned Mine Land Program says there are $59 million worth of reclamation projects outstanding. Maryland’s legacy mine land problems are similar to Pennsylvania’s but on a smaller scale. No official figure is available, but there may be approximately 5,000 acres remaining to be cleaned up.

Acid mine damage & the Bay

Do the acidic water and heavy metals flushing from abandoned mines in Pennsylvania and Maryland harm the Chesapeake Bay?

Certainly, vast dilution takes place as the water flows downstream, and some officials say that insulates the Bay from any deleterious effect.

The state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, which leads the Bay restoration effort, has said that “the buffering capacity of the region is sufficient to neutralize all of the acid from acid mine drainage.” But more studies need to be done, it says, “to evaluate transport of metals to the Bay itself.”

Other scientists have some concerns about downstream impacts.

“Impacts of acid mine drainage on stream ecosystem function … cascade to downstream reaches, impacting function there and perhaps even in receiving estuaries, in our case, the Chesapeake and Delaware bays,” concluded a 2012 study by the Stroud Water Research Center and two universities.

“The alteration of function in thousands of kilometers of acid mine drainage-impacted steams in Pennsylvania suggests that remediation of acid mine drainage-impacted reaches may be just as critical as other pollution mitigation strategies that are implemented to improve water quality in large rivers and estuaries.”

Acid mine drainage in PA town

Shamokin Creek flows orange from the effects of acid mine drainage in Shamokin, PA, in September 2019.

Several studies have found that the heavy metals produced in acid mine drainage actually remove harmful phosphorus nutrients. But later, sediment containing the nutrient may move downstream.

Moreover, contends John Dawes of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, “I would argue that if those 2,000 miles [of acid mine-damaged streams] in the Bay watershed were fully functional and processing nitrogen, I think it could have a measurable impact on the Bay.”

Richard Eskin, former director of Maryland’s science services administration in the Department of the Environment, sees it this way: “Acid mine drainage isn’t a significant concern for the Bay, but it’s not something we should ignore either, not if we want to talk honestly about fixing watersheds.”

A mining history

The first reports of coal mining in Pennsylvania go back to the 1700s, when a fledgling iron industry took hold. One of the earliest coal extractions during the Colonial period was collected from a Pittsburgh coal seam and transported by canoe to a military fort.

By the mid-1800s, coal replaced the use of wood in factories that produced steel, locomotives, railroad lines and ships, as well as for heating homes. Coal powered the steel that helped win both World Wars.

The state became the nation’s top producer of coal, both anthracite and bituminous, until the 1930s when it was passed by West Virginia. Production peaked in 1918, when 277 million tons of coal were hauled out of 2,851 underground mines.

Historic image of PA coal miners

Bituminous coal miners pose for a photo in western Pennsylvania during the boom times. (PA Dept. of Environmental Protection)

In contrast, there are currently 211 coal mines in the state, 113 of them in the Bay watershed. Most are surface mines. Underground mines are mostly mechanized.

The industry was wracked by violence in the 1920s as exploited miners sought to organize. The 1920s also marked the decline of peak coal in the state resulting from overproduction and shrinking markets.

Use of coal shifted from the steel industry to fueling electricity. But that, too, is in decline in the face of cheaper natural gas, along with concerns about global warming and impacts on human health from coal-fired power plants.

Pennsylvania has slipped to third in the nation in coal production, behind Wyoming and West Virginia and is barely ahead of Illinois. Both nuclear power and natural gas supply more electricity in the state than coal.

One of the most infamous mining accidents in Pennsylvania was the Knox Mine disaster in 1959. Operating illegally, a coal company mined an underground vein of coal within 19 inches of the surface of the Susquehanna River.

The roof collapsed and a whirlpool formed as the river flooded the network of mines. Twelve miners died, and their bodies were never recovered. Sand, concrete and even train boxcars were poured into the gaping hole over several weeks to stem the drain.

The accident caused mining laws to be reformed in Pennsylvania and essentially ended underground mining for anthracite coal in the state.

Western Maryland’s underground coal mines also date from the 1700s. Later, use of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad allowed access to markets at home and abroad.

Maryland coal mining peaked in the early 1900s, with 450 mines in operation. Today, there are 48 active coal mines, all but four of them surface mines. All but two are located in the Chesapeake Bay drainage basin. Coal drives 37% of all electricity produced in Maryland.

Because mines were often located in rural areas, coal companies built entire towns. Many have disappeared completely.

The mining workforce often was composed of immigrant laborers. It was dangerous work. From 1877 to 1940, 18,000 men and boys died in mines in Pennsylvania from accidents. Untold numbers died later from the insidious black lung disease, caused by inhaling coal dust.

First regulations

Being the economic force that they were, coal mines were not regulated against environmental damage. It was typical for coal companies, both large and small, to mine an area, then move on, leaving buildings, leaking mine shafts, polluted water and scarred lands behind — until 1977, when Congress passed the Surface Mining, Reclamation and Control Act.

Vetoed twice and resisted for years, the law was pushed into action by public outcry and driven in large part by the vast abandoned mine land in Pennsylvania. The legislation brought control over coal mining by the federal government. It required all mining companies going forward to better protect the environment and restore land to beneficial use when mining ceased.

But its most ambitious initiative was to start cleaning up the long-festering legacy of abandoned mine land. All states had to inventory abandoned mine land and develop reclamation plans. To fund cleanups, a reclamation fee, placed on each ton of extracted coal mined, was placed in a trust fund.

The money was distributed to states, based on the amount of abandoned mine land, with an emphasis on correcting threats to public health and safety. Cleaning up the environment was initially a lower priority, but a change in the law in 1996 allows more to be spent on addressing acid mine drainage.

In 2016, Congress added a taxpayer-funded program, the Abandoned Mine Land Pilot Program, which allows for cleanups that help return mine land to productive uses to help the economies of coal communities.

Between the two funds, Pennsylvania has received $1.5 billion to date. Maryland, which doesn’t qualify for the pilot funds and gets the minimum of trust funds, has gotten about $84 million.

The cleanup money has been used for a wide variety of projects.

The Maryland Bureau of Mines reports that it has overseen more than 300 projects, cleaned up 2,400 acres of abandoned mine land, removed 14 miles of dangerous highwalls, restored or improved 115 miles of streams, sealed more than 100 mine portals, stabilized 27 landslides, provided drinkable water to 128 homes and stabilized miles of roads and listing buildings, including some on the campus of Frostburg State University.

A bureau spokesman said all of the high-priority abandoned mine problems have been addressed in Western Maryland, either with federal trust fund money or by coal companies re-mining old sites.

Pennsylvania has remediated 76,000 acres. Projects have tackled clogged streams, dangerous highwalls, landslides, mine openings, coal waste piles, underground mine fires and subsidence issues. Although it is not considered a human health priority, acid mine drainage is increasingly being treated to clean up the dead and colorized streams around the state.

In both states, projects intended to extract the orange hue and return life to streams generally treat the symptoms rather than the cause, using systems that must be run and maintained with no end in sight. Active treatment systems are like mini wastewater plants, taking in contaminated water and releasing it in better condition. Passive systems range from neutralizing the acidic water with injections of lime to the creation of wetlands that use mushroom compost to create bacteria that captures heavy metals.

Acide mine drainage in Little Conemaugh River, PA

Acidic water from an old coal spoil pile makes the Little Conemaugh River in southwestern Pennsylvania run orange and kills its vegetation. The waste pile was removed in 2020 by the coal industry, partly by burning the waste coal to generate electricity. (Foundation for Pennsylvania  Watersheds)

There are more than 300 active and passive treatment systems in Pennsylvania and 60 in Maryland coal country, cleansing many streams that flow toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Meanwhile, a private initiative to burn old coal waste piles to generate electricity has substantially boosted the cleanup effort in Pennsylvania. There are 10 such plants in the state. They treat the coal before burning it to reduce air pollution.

According to the Anthracite Region Independent Power Producers Association, the effort to date has removed 225 million tons of refuse, restored 1,200 miles of streams and reclaimed 7,200 acres of land.

“These plants have played a crucial role in cleaning up and restoring many of the hundreds of abandoned coal waste piles,” said Dawes of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds. Coal waste piles are not considered high priority under federal reclamation rules and would not have gotten funding for cleanup, he said.

The plants “are truly life altering for the communities where they are located,” said Jerrod Givens of the Appalachian Region Independent Power Producers Association.

Cover photo: Orange water, caused by acid mine drainage, flows through a tributary stream of Dutchman Run in Lycoming County, PA, within the McIntyre Wild Area of Loyalsock State Forest. (2013 by Nicholas A. Tonelli/Flickr, cropped)

Ad Crable is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Pennsylvania. Contact him at 717-341-7270 or acrable@bayjournal.com.

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