College students test creek for mine acid

NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. -- Acid mine drainage research done by a group of 19 Westminster College students has provided the Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition with some hard-to-get information.
The testing of passive water treatment sites in the headwaters of Slippery Rock Creek in Butler County included analyses the coalition was never able to get before, said Margaret H. Dunn, president of Stream Restoration Inc., an independent western Pennsylvania environmental group that handles grants and related activities for the coalition.
A group of environmentalists formed the coalition in 1994 with the goal of restoring the land, water and wildlife resources of the Slippery Rock Watershed, which has been impacted by acid mine drainage.
Coal mining has been conducted in the area for more than 100 years, and the headwaters of Slippery Rock Creek were documented in 1970 during Operation Scarlift (a state-funded program) as having "the most severe condition of coal mine drainage." It was so bad the creek was called "sulfur creek" by area residents.
What they did
The Westminster students, chemistry and biochemistry majors in an advanced laboratory chemistry class, spent three weeks taking samples from the stream between Boyers and Eau Claire in northern Butler County. They used both field and laboratory analysis to test the effectiveness of two passive water treatment sites.
Passive treatment systems use natural processes such as limestone rock beds to remove acid from the water, essentially treating mine waste in an environmentally friendly manner.
The systems are installed around areas with acid mine drainage problems, and the sites need to be checked regularly to make sure they are functioning.
The coalition has installed 12 of them since 1995 and more are planned.
The students reported their findings at a monthly meeting of the coalition.
"We were energized by the Westminster College student presentations," Dunn said. "Their work encouraged participants in the Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition to improve the function of the passive systems treating abandoned mine drainage."
"This is a win-win situation," said Dr. Helen Boylan, Westminster assistant professor of chemistry. "The students get a hands-on experience with real world samples and observe chemistry in action, and SRWC avoids the very expensive cost to hire a commercial lab for routine monitoring of their systems."
How this benefits
Students use their knowledge about the chemistry of acid mine drainage and chemical testing to study the water samples, and provide a community service by partnering with the coalition, she said.
The monitoring was a service learning project funded by the Drinko Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Westminster.
Local students involved in the project are David Davis, a junior biochemistry major from Canfield; Cory Criss, a junior biochemistry major from Beloit; Leslie Danos, a junior environmental science major from Sharpsville; and Joseph Elliott, a junior biochemistry major, and Durann VanGorder, a junior chemistry major, both from New Castle.
The Slippery Rock Watershed encompasses an area of 410 square miles, Dunn said.
Westminster students aren't the only college students doing some testing in the region.
Students from Grove City College are monitoring biology in streams receiving the mine drainage, Dunn said, noting their work has been concentrated in Seaton Creek, which was dead for a century but is now coming back to life. Fish have been found in the creek recently, she said.
Slippery Rock students have been involved in monitoring the main branch of Slippery Rock Creek, Boylan added.

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