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Creek restoration gets funding, has environmental impacts for region

Earth Conservancy is working to restore the Nanticoke Creek on the Blue Coal Company's former property.
Kat Bolus
Earth Conservancy is working to restore the Nanticoke Creek on the Blue Coal Company's former property.

Creeks, streams and other waterways were often a nuisance for coal mining companies.

"What had happened over the years as the coal company started strip mining the surface of the lands, they would keep redirecting the stream so they could get at the coal," said Terry Ostrowski, president and CEO of Earth Conservancy.

The headwaters of Espy Run in Luzerne County were at one point directed into a strip pit. Nanticoke Creek was blocked by a mining company, he said.

The nonprofit received an almost $2 million dollar grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to begin restoring the historic alignment of the Nanticoke Creek in Luzerne County. The creek hasn’t flowed properly in 100 years. The project will reduce pollution from the underground mines.

Earth Conservancy also recently received funding from the Department of Environmental Protection. Ostrowski estimates the project could cost up to $18 million to complete.

Those creeks and their watersheds are on land once owned by the Blue Coal Corporation, now managed by Earth Conservancy. The organization restored Epsy Run and is working to bring Nanticoke Creek back from beneath the surface in some areas and to a normal meander after years of neglect by the mining industry.

The work will be done in phases. Earth Conservancy is working downstream first. They will relocate a large section of Nanticoke Creek that flows along the Dundee Apartments. It will be moved more south and across Clarks Cross Road.

“So the EPA funding will allow us to start in the lowest reaches of the project area, which is very close to where the Askam borehole discharges," said Ostrowski.

All surface water, whether it’s rain or snow melt, has to flow somewhere. It's usually into a creek or river. That drainage area is often called a watershed. Ostrowski said the Nanticoke Creek watershed is the size of the City of Pittston.

Since the creek is nonexistent in some places or improperly channeled, the water seeps into and pools in the mine beneath. Underground it mixes with minerals, including iron, and becomes highly acidic. That altered water fills up the mines and eventually discharges at the Askam Borehole in Hanover Twp.

During the boom of mining for Anthracite coal, the companies would pump that water out.

"When the mine companies left they turned the pumps off and walked away," said Ostrowski. "So this water just basically filled up the the underground mine workings.”

The water that flows out of the Askam Borehole is released into the Nanticoke Creek.

"Before these boreholes were built that pressure would cause a lot of subsidence in the surface, it would flood people's basements," he said.

Once the water, now rich in heavy metals, hits the air, it oxidizes and turns a rusty, orange color. Then it turns everything else around it orange, like the large rocks in the creek. Aquatic wildlife cannot flourish because of the water’s acidity.

The restoration project also includes removing a dam from Leuders Creek, a tributary of Nanticoke Creek. Blue Coal created a concrete channel to wash coal at the Trusdale Colliery. Sections of it are broken, causing that water to also seep into the mines below.

Earth Conservancy has a retention pond and treatment facility right downstream from the Askam Borehole. But Ostrowski said the work they’re doing on both creeks should greatly reduce the amount of water that even needs to be discharged from the mines.

Eventually the project will address a large blockage in the Nanticoke Creek that is more upstream. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protect first noted the blockage in 1975, said Ostrowski.

The Blue Coal Corporation owned 16,500 acres of land in the lower south valley in Luzerne County. They went bankrupt in December 1976. Former U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski secured a $20 million grant in 1992 from the U.S. Defense Department to purchase Blue Coal’s property. Kanjorski’s original plan included creating a research center on the land. That purchase also created Earth Conservancy. Their mission is to put the land back into some productive use.

Some of the land was sold for logistic centers. The mine-scarred land was remediated, leveled out and given a new purpose.

The restoration of the property for economic development helps fund their environmental projects.

Elizabeth Hughes, communications director, said there is interconnectivity with everything that Earth Conservancy does.

The organization also attract like-minded organizations to the rehabbed land, including Patagonia. The outdoor apparel company is known for its environmental activism.

“Patagonia was looking to do solar work. They've adopted one of our trails," said Hughes. "Bringing those types of people together that actually do care about environmental issues to an extent, like it has these ripple effects.”

Of the 16,5000 acres, Earth Conservancy must preserve 10,000.

Right now, they are working with the North Branch Land Trust and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to convey 1,400 acres into state forest lands. A lot of that land is ridge top areas of Wilkes-Barre and Penobscot Mountains and the headwaters of the Nanticoke Creek and Espy Run.

Once all the former Blue Coal land is either preserved or sold, Earth Conservancy will cease to exist.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.