Saving Our Mountain Streams 

by R.  Jay Gangewere

Powdermill Nature Reserve tries the natural approach to fighting pollution from abandoned mines 

The fishermen stopped casting their lines into Laurel Run more than six decades ago. The native trout were gone, and so were the aquatic insects and smaller fish that the trout fed upon. Laurel Run had died quietly. Like many other  mountain streams in the Appalachian Mountains, this two-mile stream at the headwaters of Loyalhanna Creek in eastern Westmoreland County was poisoned slowly by acid and dissolved metals seeping from a small, private coal mine hidden back in the hills. 

Five or 10 years ago the acids and other contaminants draining from abandoned mines into western Pennsylvania's streams were thought to irreversibly pollute the streams. "But today recent technological advances in passive treatment systems are offering exciting new ways to improve water quality and restore stream ecosystems," says Lysle Sherwin of the Loyalhanna Watershed Association (LWA). This membership-supported group is sponsoring a new initiative to clean up Laurel Run. 

Abandoned mine drainage (or AMD) is an enormous problem in Pennsylvania. It pollutes more than 7,500 miles of  streams and rivers in the United States, and the majority of the damaged streams in the Northeast are in western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia. Pennsylvania alone has more than 3,000 miles of polluted streams and rivers. Mine drainage is the major source of stream degradation in the region, and is responsible for 50% of the state's streams not meeting the standards of the Clean Water Act. It is much more damaging to streams than acid rain and agricultural runoff. 

Lysle Sherwin of the Loyalhanna Watershed and Joseph Merritt of Powdermill Nature Reserve examine the first plants placed in the wetlands of the Friedline project.
Bituminous coal mining guaranteed cheap, accessible fuel for the heavy industry of  the region for more than a century, and mines of all types honeycombed the rich Pittsburgh coal seam. This seam, running beneath parts of the Allegheny Mountains in the eastern United States is one of the great geological features of the Earth: approximately 2,000 miles long, 6-8 feet thick, and often only 20-30 feet below the surface. In the Latrobe area the high quality of the metallurgical coal, and its accessibility and low cost of extraction, were irresistible. 

After a century of  heavy use, many of Pennsylvania's mines were abandoned as mining companies went out of existence. The locations of  many mineshafts and tunnels in western Pennsylvania were never precisely mapped, and some remain a mystery today. As in the rest of Appalachia, many small mines in the Laurel Highlands 50 miles east of Pittsburgh were so local that only the landowners and their neighbors used them. The Friedline Mine, for example, was a small 600-foot "drift" mine (i.e. extending uphill) into a thin coal seam in a hill on Hugh Friedline's farm. Geologically, it is identified as the Lower Kittaning seam. From the 1920s through the 1950s, when the mine was abandoned, it provided house coal for the kitchens and homes of the farmer and his neighbors. 

Coal was cheap, and absolutely necessary, from the Depression through the 1950s. The miner was often a boy who could crawl uphill hundreds of feet on his knees, hack a bushel of soft bituminous coal from the seam, and push it back down the hole to deposit it in a small cart on rails. Eight bushels filled a cart, which could be pushed down the rails to a tipple, where it was dumped into the waiting bed of the buyer's wagon or truck. A good day's work of ten hours produced eight loads from the mine, and for this the miner earned about $2.00. 

The Friedline system receives water draining from the mine in the first collect pond and then allows it to move slowly through a set of sedimentation ponds and wetlands.  The bottom of the ponds have a limestone base,  topped with a layer of manure.  After moving slowly through one set of ponds, the water enters a second set of ponds at a lower level to repeat the process.  The minewater undergoes purification in the system for about one month before entering Laurel Run.
In 1968 Hugh Friedline and his wife, a well-remembered  local couple, retired from farming and sold their 240-acre farm to neighboring Powdermill Nature Reserve. The property became part of the 2,200-acre field station of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which specializes in biological research, conservation and public education. 

The Friedline mine has been seeping "hot water" (i.e. chemically toxic water) for decades. Within a few hundred feet the seepage reaches Laurel Run, the small upland tributary of Loyalhanna Creek. From there the passage of water downhill is inevitable. Laurel Run flows soon into White Oak Run, where the highly concentrated acids are diluted. These waters move next into Powdermill Run and finally into the Loyalhanna Creek, which has a watershed draining some 300 square miles of eastern Westmoreland County. The Loyalhanna enters the Kiskiminetas, and the water then flows into the Allegheny and then past Pittsburgh into the Ohio. When you contemplate a headwaters and its watershed, you realize that everyone lives downstream from some point of pollution. 

Laurel Run does not look dead. This is because each mine draining toxins into a stream has its own chemical signature, and the acids and dissolved metals like aluminum and iron in this particular stream do not discolor it dramatically.  Ten miles to the west near Latrobe a larger stream-Monastery Run behind Saint Vincent College-is much more visibly polluted. It too drains a hillside in the Laurel Highlands, but the streambed of Monastery Run is dramatically blanketed with "yellow-boy"-the orange slime of "rusty" iron that is the well-known sign of drainage from abandoned mines. 

Monastery Run looks worse, but Laurel Run is worse. The Friedline Mine discharge entering Laurel Run makes a "particularly nasty little stream," says Mark Killar of the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (WPCAMR). The low level seepage of 5 to 10 gallons per minute keeps the concentrations of acids and dissolved metals high. Laurel Run has a very low pH factor of 2.7 to 2.9. (Any pH measurement less than 3.0 is highly acidic, and less than 5.0 life is threatened.) Monastery Run, in contrast, is less acidic than Laurel Run, despite the bottom deposits of iron, with a pH of 6.5. 

Aluminum deposits seeping from the Friedline Mine are a special problem. The concentration of dissolved aluminum alone is 80 times higher than that needed to kill fish. Less than one part per million of aluminum per liter is enough to kill trout, according to Lysle Sherwin. This analysis is based on long-term studies by Penn State researchers of Linn Run and other acid-rain impacted headwaters of the Loyalhanna watershed. The trout suffocate-their gills form thick protective coatings of mucous to keep away the dissolved metal and acid in the water, and they die from lack of oxygen, as well as from kidney failure. Life in Laurel Run disappeared gradually. In contrast, a dramatic fish kill is usually seen only when there is a "blowout" of water from an abandoned mine, caused by heavy rainfall or flooding. 

The Monastery Run system of linked ponds shows the marshy yet park-like look of a maturing passive treatment system.

Breaking the Chemical Dam 

Experts on stream pollution from abandoned mines are now hopefully experimenting with "passive treatment." The goal is ambitious: let nature itself purify contaminated minewater over time through a slow-flowing system of linked ponds which collect the toxins in sediments, and neutralize the acids which kill life. By breaking the chemical dam that keeps life out of the water, passive treatment can return a stream to a reasonably healthy state. Some streams have returned to normal conditions within a year. The diatoms and algae first reappear, and then the insects and smaller fish, and eventually the aquatic king of this local food chain-the native brook trout. 

Restoration ecologist Eric McCleary of Damariscotta, Inc.-the Clarion-based company that conceived and designed the sequencing and layout of the Friedline system-notes that the solution for Laurel Run was a two-part system. Called SAPS (i.e. Successive Alkalinity Producing System), each part has a pond for free-standing water, from which the water flows into two sedimentation basins and aerobic wetlands. Aluminum and iron will be precipitated out in the settling ponds, and  limestone and compost raise pH values and generate alkalinity, and that aids in the precipitation of additional iron and aluminum. The ponding sequence is repeated because of the limit of metal that can be precipitated in one sequence. The amount of limestone used to line the pond basins has a life expectancy of 40 years-meaning that with normal maintenance its ability to neutralize acids will be used up in about four decades. Damariscotta has engineered passive water-cleaning systems all over the world, from Tasmania to Canada, including about 100 in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. 

Once installed, a passive system requires only routine and comparatively inexpensive maintenance. At Friedline, only a few hours a year may be needed, to turn a valve and flush out collected aluminum deposits into a pond area where they can be accumulated, and perhaps even removed to a landfill every two years. Researchers are studying whether the collected aluminum deposits could even be marketed. This would be is an environmentalist's dream come true: recycling of  metals from a metal-polluted stream. 

Passive treatment is especially appropriate for "abandoned" mines-which technically means mines that closed before 1977-the year when federal legislation began requiring active mine companies to assist in the environmental clean-up of their operations. No new landowner can be expected to be happy about paying the high expenses of curing pollution problems created by historic mining practices. 

The technology for this is surprisingly recent and evolving, and the Friedline site has another claim to attention for being a cradle of this technology. More than 20 years ago scientists from Pennsylvania State University and Carnegie Museum of Natural History in cooperation with LWA installed a "living filtration system" to clean Laurel Run. They used a settling pond and irrigated, lime-treated forest soils to purify the minewater. But the experiment had only limited beneficial effects on water quality. The weekly drawdown and refilling of the sedimentation pool was labor intensive and uncertain, and the complex chemistry of aluminum in minewater was not sufficiently understood to engineer the precise sequence of linked ponds that could solve the problem. 

Each mine presents its own challenge as a chemistry experiment. The type and flow of toxic water discharge depends upon variables such as the soil over the mine (the overburden), the amount and composition of the coal left inside, the nature of the shafts, and the local watertable. Each passive treatment system needs to be engineered and matched to a particular drainage problem. 

Although cheap by the high-priced standards of environmental restoration which include cleaning up hazardous waste sites at a cost of millions, passive remediation does have start-up construction and maintenance expenses. The direct costs at Friedline amounted to over $67,000 for design, earth-moving equipment, limestone, pipe and other hardware, labor, and project management. This was bolstered by donated materials, volunteer labor and technical assistance valued at more than $45,000. The business donors included Agostinone Mushrooms which supplied compost, road gravel from Latrobe Construction, Gibson-Thomas Engineers, Skyview Laboratory, Waste Management, Inc., and cattail plants from Wetland Supply company. Loyalhanna Watershed members and Powdermill maintenance staff contributed over 200 hours in clearing the mostly wooded two acres. 

Passive systems often require an elaborate network of government and private organizations to support each other in order to trigger the necessary funding and "in-kind" engineering. Loyalhanna Watershed Association and Powdermill Nature Reserve are the main private sponsors-in cooperation with the Westmoreland Conservation District and the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (WPCAMR). Currently WPCAMR is funding 16 projects in 12 counties, all devoted to eliminating abandoned mine drainage. 

The Friedline  project partners include the United States Department of Agriculture, which made a major commitment of staff time for engineering and construction oversight, the regional office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Somerset, Pa., as well as Penn's Corner R.C.&D, Damariscotta, Inc.,  Americorps, the federal Office of Surface Mining, and the Greensburg District Mining Office of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. 

The prime contractor selected from six bidders was Ecological Restoration, Inc. (ERI), David Hails, president. Based in Apollo, ERI has built a number of wetlands for industrial wastewater treatment and to "mitigate" or replace wetlands lost to highway construction and other large land use changes. 

Education and Research 

The Friedline Mine has one other important distinction. Because it is on the property of the Nature Reserve, it has high visibility for biological research, and will gain public attention through Powdermill's very active program in environmental education. Public education is one of the keys to improvement in dealing with this difficult and usually out-of-sight environmental problem. Last year some 15,000 people participated in Powdermill's education programs, and schoolchildren and others interested in environmental  restoration were doing water quality experiments at the Friedline site even before it was officially dedicated on October 17, 1997. 

The growing interest in watershed restoration is seen in another nearby educational program. At Saint Vincent college the new Summer Institute of Watershed Restoration opened its doors for a month in 1996, with funding by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This college program focuses on the Loyalhanna Watershed, including the on-site Monastery Run system and the Friedline site. Scientists from Carnegie Museum of Natural History work with students at the Institute, as well as at Powdermill. 

Joseph Merritt, the resident director of Powdermill, says "I believe our commitment to the remediation of contaminated mine drainage will act as a catalyst for the initiation of similar programs throught the Commonwealth. We would like to set an example for others to follow." 

Powdermill Stream, which runs through the Reserve, may be the most scientifically investigated stream of its size in the nation. For decades the Reserve has cultivated biological research with colleges and universities, and been the site for more than a few scientific studies. The current work of ornithologist Robert Mulvihill on the nesting patterns of the Louisiana Waterthrush along a mountain stream is a typical example. If the acidified water affects these birds, they can be considered a bio-indicator of stream quality in similar mountain streams. Carnegie Museum of Natural History has decades worth of scientific data collected during field studies of insects, amphibians, birds, mammals and plants, and long-standing relationships with scientists at places like Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh. 

The Future 

There is clearly a trend toward increasing public awareness of the environmental problems created by AMD, and for exploring solutions. The obvious problems of two decades ago-great scars on a denuded landscape left by surface mining-have received the first wave of public criticism and efforts at reform. Now the focus has shifted to the long-term, less visible damage of AMD. The government increasingly sponsors experiments in passive treatment, and mine companies are increasingly sensitive and responsive to the need to protect the environment. 

In September, 1997 Allen Klein, regional director of the federal Office of Surface Mining, explained the funding problems facing reclamation efforts in western Pennsylvania to more than 100 people at the third Annual Mine Drainage Conference and Workshop. He said  that abandoned mine drainage needs to be addressed "with more sincerity, more partners and more money." 

Clearly governments are not usually quick to fund unproven technologies, and so the burden of experimentation and innovative partnerships requires private sector help. Individuals play an important part. At the ceremony officially opening the Friedline experiment on October 17, 1997, Thomas Nimick, a supporter of research at Powdermill Nature Reserve and a member of the LWA Board of Directors, was gratefully praised for his commitment in being "the largest stockholder in the abandoned Friedline Mine." In this region the Heinz Endowments have shown great leadership in supporting environmental reform. The Heinz Endowments created the Western Pennsylvania Watershed Protection Program to provide grants to non-profit groups to remediate the area's watersheds. 

In the future there will be need for more partnerships among government, the private sector, and grass roots watershed organizations. But there are two other great forces that will shape the destiny of attempts to clean streams polluted by abandoned mine drainage. One is the future mining practices of the mining industry, and the second is federal government policy about funding the cleanup of  streams and rivers. 

The mining industry has become more efficient with its technologies-notably with the introduction of new longwall mining machinery that allows deep mines (as opposed to surface mines) to be more economical. A special machine shears coal from the face of a seam, and makes it unnecessary to leave pillars to support the roof in the traditional room-and-pillar technique. The good news is economy and efficiency with longwall mining, as well as the industry's willingness to "remine" old  sites to gain the last coal from them, and to shut them down in ways that limit acid drainage. 

But concerned environmentalists point out the possibilities of a new wave of acid mine drainage in the future, if these new longwall mines are ever abandoned as the old mines were. Government officials point out that leaking "hot water" is less likely to be a public problem than mine subsidence. Longwall mining allows the ceilings of the mined areas to collapse after the machinery has finished, thus closing off the seams to water and air. But then collapsing of the earth above the mineshaft will occur, leading to techniques of "planned subsidence" as mining takes place. 

The second great issue facing mine remediation is the federal policy for funding clean-up of acid mine drainage. Since 1977 legislation such as the Surface Mining and Reclamation Act has required  mining companies to be taxed for each ton of coal they remove: 35 cents per ton for surface mines, and 15 cents per ton for underground mines. This amounts to $250 million per year, which has been kept in a special trust fund for reclamation use. 

Tim Dieringer, chief of the Federal Reclamation Program for the Appalachian Region, notes that while about $150 million is allocated each year for reclamation, another $100 million has been kept in reserve-amounting to a total of about $1.3 billion in the course of 20 years. This large sum, which in various ways has been used as a credit in Washington to offset the federal debt, has triggered concerned congressmen such as Representative John Murtha of Johnstown to argue for the release of more of these funds for reclamation projects. Getting the mine reclamation trust funds "taken off the budget" is thus a goal of the environmentalists, since then the money could be spent for its intended purposes, such as funding clean-up projects in rivers and streams. 

The Friedline Mine is only 600-feet long, and Laurel Run is only a small stream in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania. But together they symbolize a great environmental problem in the Appalachian Mountains, and a national dialogue that is taking place. Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in partnering with government and the private sector to conduct this passive treatment experiment at Powdermill Nature Reserve, is part of that dialogue. Thousands of children and adults will see the problem firsthand at the Friedline Mine, and their education will be part of the solution. 

For information on Powdermill Nature Reserve programs call 412-593-6105.  

To contact the Saint Vincent College Summer Institute in Water Restoration, call Dr. Caryl Fish at 412-539-9761.  

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