Pennsylvania’s Troubled Past with Acid Mine Drainage

Pennsylvania is known for many things: cheesesteaks, steel production, Hershey’s chocolate, and coal mining. During the most prosperous years for coal mining Pennsylvania produced over 25% of the nation’s coal output. Additionally, the state is presently ranked as the 4th highest coal exporter in the nation. The southwestern part of the state is rich with bituminous coal beds whereas the north- and central- eastern parts of the state have an abundance of anthracite coal.

A lake in Northeast PA is no longer used for recreation because of AMD. Photo by Marissa Rollman.

A lake in Northeast PA is no longer used for recreation because of AMD. Photo by Marissa Rollman.

Despite the economic success that the coal mining industry has provided for Pennsylvania, the repetitive mining took a toll on the state’s landscape and waterways. It is estimated that over 4,000 miles of streams and rivers in PA are biologically dead from being polluted by acid mine drainage, a by-product of coal mining. In the 1950s and 60s plenty of mines were abandoned by companies and the waste began seeping into waterways.

The orange substance forms when metal sulfides, mostly pyrite, are exposed to air and water through weathering processes. The reaction forms the acid mine waste and is an extreme obstruction to wildlife. In many instances, the bodies of water become unable to be used for recreation and cannot support aquatic organisms, rendering the water almost useless because of the acidity and metal toxicity. Acid mine drainage leaves waterbodies lifeless until the water can be restored back to its natural state.

The PA Department of Environmental Protection estimates the remediation efforts will cost around $1 billion. To treat this problem passively, we can use structures such as settling ponds and limestone beds. On the other hand, active mitigation includes the use of bases to neutralize the acidic water and aeration units. Whatever tactics we use, we must start the process of reclaiming Pennsylvania’s water from acid mine drainage and repair our waterbodies.

Marissa Rollman