Mine Drainage Cleanup in Western Pa. an Expensive, Slow Process
19 January 2013
By Brian Bowling
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
“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
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
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
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,”
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
To stop the flow, Fishing Run‘s stream bed would be lined with
“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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.