From hot water to highwalls: coal mining's negative effects
The most serious environmental problem caused by abandoned mines is polluted water.
SHAMOKIN, Pa. (AP) -- You can stand on a bridge over Shamokin Creek in the center of town and on a sunny day see clear to the bottom. It would be a lovely sight, except that the water is tinted orange and the creek appears to be utterly lifeless -- no plants, no fish, nothing.
"It's pretty hot," explains Mike Ferko, meaning too polluted to sustain life.
Over his shoulder, a black mountain looms. It is waste coal, perhaps the largest such pile in the nation, and it is smoldering. So is the abandoned mine underneath it. These fires will likely burn for some time, feeding on an almost limitless supply of anthracite coal.
At one time, this plentiful and relatively cheap fuel source heated millions of homes and powered the Industrial Revolution. A century ago, Pennsylvania mines employed hundreds of thousands of workers, many of them immigrants, and produced more than one-quarter of the nation's coal.
The problem is that once coal operators followed the seams as far as they could and took as much from the surface as possible, they usually abandoned the mine workings, leaving others -- successor companies, citizen groups and the government -- to deal with the environmental and public safety consequences.
"We've made some good inroads but there's so much to do," says Ferko, the state environmental official responsible for cleaning up abandoned anthracite mines. The state has "been ravaged over the years, and in some cases over the centuries," by the effects of coal mining.
No obvious solutions
Ferko knows pretty much by heart the location of every polluted creek, mine fire, coal pile and highwall in eastern Pennsylvania. He's been at it for more than 30 years, but progress is slow. There are thousands of these sites, more than in any other state, and money and manpower are limited.
The problems are easy to see. In Columbia County, Centralia became a ghost town after a trash-filled strip pit caught fire in 1962 and ignited a coal vein, endangering homes and businesses. All-terrain vehicles sometimes plunge over highwalls -- sheer cliffs created during surface mining -- and people fall down abandoned mine shafts. Mine subsidence damages buildings and roads.
"You can pretty much say southwestern Pennsylvania is held up by 100-year-old posts, same thing in the Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Pottsville area," said J. Scott Roberts, deputy secretary for DEP's Office of Mineral Resources Management.
By far the most serious environmental problem caused by abandoned mines is polluted water. It happens when rain comes into contact with a surface or underground mine and interacts with the mineral pyrite, better known as fool's gold, to form sulfuric acid. The toxic brew discharges into streams and rivers, choking off plants and wildlife and coating streambeds with iron hydroxide, tinting water yellow, red or orange. Aluminum, manganese and other metals also leach into the water.
Pollution in Pennsylvania
Old mining operations have polluted about 4,000 miles, or 5 percent, of the rivers and streams in Pennsylvania, officials estimate. The west branch of the mighty Susquehanna River is dead for its upper 70 miles; 1,000 miles of its tributaries are likewise lifeless. The Jeddo Tunnel, an engineering marvel drilled through miles of solid rock for the purpose of draining deep mines in the Hazleton area, discharges 40,000 gallons of polluted water each minute into the Little Nescopeck Creek -- the largest such discharge in a state full of them.
Although the state and federal governments spend millions of tax dollars every year to clean up abandoned mines, people pay in other ways, too. Fishing, boating and swimming opportunities are lost, costing businesses that cater to these sports millions in potential revenue.
Power plants that draw water from mine-polluted streams must clean the water before it is piped into their boilers or the equipment will become clogged. And municipal water suppliers, including the Philadelphia Water Department, spend money treating contaminated sources -- costs ultimately borne by consumers.
This isn't a new problem. Nearly 100 years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers found that steel hulls on barges were being corroded by acidic water flowing out of mines.
"These mines will discharge water in perpetuity. It's just a matter of how best to cleanse the water that comes out of them," Roberts said.
Bridge over troubled water
In May, voters approved "Growing Greener II," Gov. Ed Rendell's plan to borrow $625 million for environmental programs, but it's not yet clear how much of the money will go toward reclaiming abandoned mines or remediating mine drainage. And the federal mine reclamation fund remains mired in a funding dispute between eastern and western states, with Pennsylvania still owed millions of dollars.
In Shamokin, a well-kept city 40 miles northeast of Harrisburg with a population of about 7,700, residents can't remember a time when the creek was not polluted. And the mountain of waste coal -- left by the defunct Glenburn Colliery -- has been there so long that people pay it little heed.
Beverly Katalenas, 67, who was born and raised in Shamokin and has owned a flower shop there for decades, said these things might even be good for business.
"People make trips here to come see this stuff," she said. "The people who are here don't really look at it and don't realize how it looks."
A nonprofit group called the Shamokin Creek Restoration Alliance is working on the stream, but the task is enormous: There are about 55 mine discharges spanning the waterway's 50-mile length. So it is likely that the bridge in the middle of town will remain a bridge over troubled water for some time to come.