Tioga River faces pollution from mid-1800s mining
Pennsylvanians living by the Tioga River are coping with water pollution dating back to the 1800s, according to new archaeological findings.
In the mid-1800s, Fall Brook was a burgeoning miner’s town. At its peak, nearly 3,000 people lived in the borough, which boasted a luxury hotel, three schools, and several churches. However, while Fall Brook was abandoned by 1899, its problems were yet to come.
Dr. Linda Kennedy, Associate Professor of Geosciences at Mansfield University, found remnants of mine drifts – a type of shallow, horizontal mine – filled with polluted water. She explained at a lecture at Taber Museum how mining residue leaches into groundwater.
“That water becomes very acidic and it dissolves…iron, and aluminum, and manganese,” Kennedy said. “Then when that water comes to the surface and is exposed to the atmosphere, the metals in the water oxidize.”
That oxidation makes water rusty, turning it an orange color. While Kennedy located several exposed mines with polluted water, most of that water already flows into nearby streams.
“The Tioga is dead. If you look at the Tioga River, all of the rocks are covered in this very light colored slime – it’s aluminum oxide. And the pH is too low for anything to survive,” said Kennedy.
According to Kennedy, Tioga River fishing is all make-believe.
“You’re ‘pretend fishing.’ If they stock the fish [in the water] – they have to stock them – and then you can fish them for as long as they survive,” said Kennedy.
Kennedy’s data comes from the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) Bureau of Geological Survey’s light detection and ranging technique (lidar), which creates geographical models of the earth’s surface that can identify archeological sites. She said that the type of pollution caused by mid-1800s mining in present-day Ward Township is part of a greater cycle.
“So, today’s taxpayers, we are paying to clean up this legacy – what we call ‘legacy pollution’ – from the 1850s, and 60s, and 70s. Okay, your grandkids are going to be cleaning up after what we’re doing [today,]” Kennedy said.
Currently, the DCNR runs one passive, or unmanned, filtration system to clean the Tioga River. According to Kennedy, the DNCR plans to open an additional active, manned plant in the near future to support current filtration efforts.
However, Kennedy said the Tioga River is only one example of the state’s water crisis.
“Some of these streams, half of them, have no fish at all,” said Kennedy. “And the other half, the other 1,500, have a few, but nowhere near what they should have if the water was pristine.”
The Tioga River is one in 3,000 known ‘impaired’ streams in Pennsylvania.