A Report: The Eradication of Acid Mine Drainage in Western Pennsylvania The Pennsylvania State University
Wyatt L. Stucke: Geography_130: Environmental Justice Professor Foo March 2016
Abstract This world is a challenged place. It would be a blatant lie to say that the vast majority of global problems donâ€™t arise from causes that can be solely attributed to the human race. We, as a society, both historically and presently, are the maintainers of poor habits that have led to outstanding pollution rates and costs to the international economy that are on the verge of unrecoverable. However, stepping out of this dim light and looking toward a brighter future, there is a progressive attempt to right our ancestors and our own wrongs. Like never before, the struggle to maintain our polluted world is being pushed in the right direction. One of these drives is that of the effort to reduce the pollution caused by Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) in various locations across the continent. In the following explanation and argument(s) I will detail the causes, effects, and reversibility of Acid Mine Drainage.
Introduction During the late 18th century and for the entirety of the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a hidden and progressing monster that crept below and just atop the surface of every form of metal and ore mine in the world (Community Projects Group). As mining techniques improved with the creation and development of deep mining, strip mining, blast mining, and quarrying, the potential surface area of mines increased well over ten-fold (Steam & Speed). This has not only exposed dangerous, un-repaired terrain to humans and animals but it has also exposed toxic dangerous minerals to air and water. The most influential of them has proven to be various sulfites that come in contact with air and water to form sulfuric acid, which then percolates slowly into small tributary streams and in some cases ground water aquifers. This pollution can and will travel for hundreds and, more rarely, thousands of miles down river causing terrible damage to larger rivers and bodies of water. AMD has caused the degradation of over 12,000 km of streams within the Northeastern United States, with 80% of that total representing watersheds in Pennsylvania and West Virginia (United States Environmental Protection Agency 1997A).
Quantitative Findings The Environmental Protection Agency (1997B) estimated that it will cost approximately $15 billion to cleanup the states’ streams (Abandoned Mine Drainage). In some unfortunate cases, there is yet to be discovered a feasible way to reverse or even slow the pollution or its source. Slightly more hopeful are the occurrences in which the damage is contained but will not be fully reversed unless continuous treatment is administered in perpetuity for hundreds or even thousands of years (earthworksaction.org). The most promising of AMD impaired water basins are those that are being treated now. These have potential to make a full recovery within our generation’s lifetime. The damage caused by these pollution-impaired steams is incredibly devastating to wild life and humans alike. Similar to pollution caused by impervious cover created by humans, such as: dwellings, roads, parking lots, factory roofs, etc., the pollution created by abandoned and unattended mines finds its way into streams where it will dissolve into the fresh water that has a naturally regulated pH, alkalinity, mineral and organic materials content. (Water Encyclopedia) Once dissolved and/or mixed into this running water the real damage begins to occur. The Alkalinity of the water, or the water’s ability to neutralize acidic compounds, will instantly begin to diminish. The acidity of the water (measured on a 0-14 ‘pH’ scale) is inversely proportional to the alkalinity, so without this “buffer” capability of the water the acidity of the stream will, in turn, increase. This is one of the most influential effects that the tributary will display. An acidic pH means a reduction in the ability of the water to hold and carry oxygen (The Role of Alkalinity Citizen Monitoring). Without oxygen in the water fish, as well as the aqueous insects that they feed upon will suffocate and eventually leave the stream or die. These are only the immediate and short-term effects. After the alkalinity has fallen and the water has become acidic it leaves the water “thin”, “hard” and incapable of carrying particles long distances. This is where Acid Mine Drainage is often assimilated with impervious cover pollution. Both these forms of pollution, once dissolved or mixed into the stream or river, will begin to have an eroding effect due to the “hardness” brought about by the increased metallic content. As corners become worn the effect will build upon itself. The longer distances on the new “outside”
Stucke 5 of the stream will have a faster current causing faster erosion and as the water makes its way to the new “inside” corners it will slow and the eroded particles will precipitate out. Besides earth and other organic particles, the two most common precipitated metals (for the Central Pennsylvanian region) are iron and aluminum that precipitate in the form of ferrous hydroxide and aluminum particulate (stormwaterrx.com). This precipitate will fall to the bottom of the stream, river or lake bed and this is what causes the orange-red or milky-white color, also know as “Yellow-Boy”, that is often viewed in tributaries and bodies of water located in regions with a heavy mining history such as central and western Pennsylvania.
Historical Findings Besides the physical damage arising from our society’s decades of neglect to these issues, the subliminal impacts also resonate into today’s world. The industries of the past and present have managed to set a president that labeled their mining and polluting practices as an acceptable use of the environment. As the major extraction companies profited, they left in their wake the false assumption that nature will repair itself and that as long as the needs of the consumer is met, the poor decisions made will have no greater impact than that which is contained within the boundaries of the mining sites. Because of this negative ideal, other industries also found it socially acceptable to allow their waste to diffuse into the atmosphere and percolate into the hydrosphere. Steel manufacturing with its towering pollution stacks that pump out tons of carbon dioxide; the automotive recycling industry that decays in its fields of battery acid, engine fluids and metal corrosion; the newfound natural gas fields who knowingly leak their flammable solvents directly into the water table deep underground; coal fired power plants that are documented to cause massive increases in cancer downwind of themselves, each account for only a portion of the seemingly endless list that contributes to the cold shoulder turned to an innocent environment. Pennsylvania has had a very long history with mining. The first major industry that Pennsylvania held host to was the lumber industry that served partially as the influence behind it’s name; as Pennsylvania comes from the last name of the Quaker, William Penn, who is accredited with the founding of the state, and the word “Sylvania”
Stucke 6 which means “woods” in Latin; thus, Pennsylvania (The Early Days of ‘Penns Woods’). The lumber industry, although diminished, continues to be productive today. The next industry and title that Pennsylvania laid claim to was the “Oil Capital of the World”. This gave way to household names that still exist through generations such as; Jiffy Lube and Quaker State and Lube. The third major mining industry that PA has hosted is the Coal Mining Industry that still exists strongly today. Finally, the most recent mineral extraction is done by the Natural Gas industry that has swept the Northeastern and Midwestern part of the nation.
Legislation So how does all of this play into AMD? The moral of this story is that although it has had an extremely prosperous past, the state of Pennsylvania has been plagued with far too many opportunities to become abused, over-used, and overly polluted. This mineral and resource rich history has left this beautiful state’s water quality in poor and worsening condition. It is often that we follow the trail back the source and find the sole perpetrator to be the companies that allowed this mess to evolve into the catastrophe that it is today. However, it is negligent of us to ignorantly pass up the other benefactors along the way. One harsh realization that must be made is that of our government’s own turned back. Yes, it can be argued that lawmakers were kept in the dark to allow the progress of the industries to not be hindered, but that argument can only account for a certain number of years. Historically the issue has been mounting not only in Pennsylvania, but all over the country since the early 1800’s but the legislation to help find a solution to the problem of impaired water didn’t come about until 1942 and wasn’t deemed effective until its reorganization and expansion in 1972 when it was officially named the Clean Water Act (Summary of the Clean Water Act). It took over one hundred and fifty years for the federal government to produce a productive piece of legislation and even then the CWA (Clean Water Act) failed to illegalize the production of non-point source pollution, failed to prohibit the discharge in waterways that are considered non-navigable, and still allows commercial facilities to discharge certain amounts of pollution into waterways provided they obtain a government issued permit (Summary of the Clean Water Act). Although this was a vital first step, it was a mediocre effort at changing the culture surrounding
Stucke 7 pollution. The CWA was more or less a figurehead bill that let early environmentalists believe they were gaining ground; unfortunately, it came too little, too late. The government had known about the level of pollution rising at exponential rates for decades and their turned backs only offers to hint at possible corruption between government officials and major mining corporations.
Revitalization The following paragraphs are dedicated to the organizations, methods, and predicted effectiveness behind cleanup efforts in Pennsylvania: The tremendous effort across the globe that is attributed to cleaning up our forefatherâ€™s leftover and unintended messes is beginning to gain ground on the stubborn pollution. One of the most influential entities that is leading the charge in central Pennsylvania is The Evergreen Conservancy. The Evergreen Conservancy (or EC for short) is the conglomeration of ideas and proposals sparked in meetings with board members and other people in the Senior Environmental Corps, the Ken Sink Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. These meetings were the consequence of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protectionâ€™s need for an independent agency to step in and take land ownership of the recently completed wetland passive treatment system at the Tanoma Discharge. (About EC) Since its creation, the Evergreen Conservancy has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal, state, and local business grant money into various processes to investigate, hinder, monitor and reverse the effects of Acid Mine Drainage in and around all of Indiana county, PA. In this particular case the cleanup effort is comprised of a series of ten consecutively connected ponds that allow the water enough time to aerate and the iron enough time to precipitate out and fall to the bottom of the pond. This is a simple Passive Wetland Style Treatment system. There are many other agencies and treatment methods dedicated to the eradication of Acid Mine Drainage such as Trout Unlimited and their unique limestone bed treatment method. In this treatment method, the focus is on running water in river and stream tributaries. An appropriate length of waterway, based on the amount of AMD, is
Stucke 8 dedicated to play host to a large amount of limestone gravel that helps to return the alkalinity to its normal level which, in turn, helps to restore the acidity level to neutral or near neutral and, finally, allows the harsh metals to precipitate out and be absorbed by the limestone or filtered by a processing plant farther down-stream. These two agencies and their water purification methods are creating an incredible impact on the watersheds whose tributaries are located on/in Pennsylvania lands, valleys and mountains.
Conclusion From the history to the present of causation and eradication, the story of pollution is a long complex novel that happens to span across generations all the way back to the first loggers of this great state. It is safe to say that Pennsylvania would most likely be even more beautiful than it is now had the effects of AMD never been given a chance to impair the health and wellness of the PA wilds. However, without the knowledge that we currently have the future may have held an even more devastating image of destruction and abuse. And so, I find it equally safe to say that, with the momentum behind the movement we are paying witness to, Pennsylvania will have a fighting chance to return to its flawless former glory as the healthful, renewable and sustaining Keystone State.
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Stucke 10 <https://www.bucknell.edu/Documents/EnvironmentalStudies/Acid_Mine_Draina ge[.pdf>.