Environmental Effects of Mining in the Anthracite Region: Problems and Possible Solutions
Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Two centuries of anthracite mining have severely degraded the ecological conditions in large portions of eastern Pennsylvania. Most of the impact has been to terrestrial ecosystems, in that the excavation of stripping pits and the deposition of culm banks have converted an otherwise healthy forest ecosystem into a barren landscape, vegetated by a sparse scrubland of low-value, often non-native, species. The region’s aquatic resources in the form of streams, lakes, and wetlands, have also been greatly degraded by mining. Some of the destruction has been in the form of losses to original bodies of water. Other degradation is in the form of the discharge of millions of gallons of acid mine drainage each day into local creeks, and ultimately into major waterbodies like the Susquehanna and Lackawanna Rivers. As a result, the creeks are biologically dead, and the Susquehanna-Lackawanna complex shows impairment. The mining problems are interconnected in that AMD is caused by precipitation infiltrating through culm banks, by losses of streamflow in regions of degraded watercourses, and by the contact of groundwater with residual pyrite deposits in underground mine voids.
Aside from inherent losses to biological productivity and biodiversity, the damage inflicted by past mining has both sociopolitical and economic liabilities. Mined sites are viewed as being wastelands, and their drab dark-gray appearance contributes to a general feeling of despair and negativity felt by many residents. The presence of culm banks, huge stripping pits, and streams colored orange by mine drainage detracts from a sense of community pride and a land ethic. Indeed, as a building with a broken window invites further vandalism, mine lands often receive the brunt of illegal dumping by local residents.
In economic terms, abandoned mine lands have direct costs in that they are unproductive for agriculture and often unsuitable for residential or commercial development. Thus, they have inherently low property values, and usually generate far less tax revenue than unmined sites. Far more insidious is that fact that corporate officials looking to relocate companies in the anthracite region are often deterred by the residual environmental destruction. As a result, economic development within the region has seriously lagged behind that of other areas of the country.
Clearly, a large-scale initiative is needed to restore abandoned minelands. Since the problems took decades to create, they will not be solved overnight. Nor will the solutions be cheap, because the impact is dispersed over hundreds of square miles, and restoration will involve moving millions of tons of materials to regrade culm banks and fill stripping pits. Also, amending the soil to make it suitable for plant growth, adding appropriate plant stock, and restoring degraded stream channels will require enormous expenditures in terms of manpower, equipment, and materials.
Restoring the anthracite fields must be done in a way that maximizes the long term sustainability of the effort. In some cases, that will require abandoning current approaches, and adopting “smart” reclamation techniques that take the ultimate use of the site into account. For example, a site that is likely to be reclaimed for industrial development should not be treated the same way as a site intended for open space. Smart reclamation techniques will require thoughtful planning, ideally linking new Geographical Information System technologies with careful analysis of in-field conditions.
The American Heritage River initiative and associated Anthracite Task Force are ideal entities in which the current piecemeal approach can be organized into a well conceived, integrated strategy for successful, sustainable ecological reclamation. Clearly, no single organization or governmental agency can heal the environmental devastation caused by mining. Instead, an adequately funded, well conceived, integrated effort involving federal and state agencies, local scientists, the private sector, and existing and new non-profit organizations must be initiated to really fix the problem for the betterment of the region, the state, and the nation.