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Mitigating the impacts of coal mining, one grant at a time

The locals call it Mount Dickson.

"The coal content was never high enough ... to be viable in order to use it for anything," said Dickson City Borough Manager Cesare Forconi.

The massive pile of what Forconi said is coal spoils sits on 35 acres of land in the borough. The Lackawanna County Planning and Economic Development office is one of 16 organizations to receive federal funding allocated by the state to clean up mine waste. They'll use the grant for an engineering study to remove the pile in Dickson City.

"There are still scars. And we're hoping to remove a big one here," said Forconi.

Half of the recent funding from the state's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) will be spent in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania.

The $101 million is from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The projects must have a focus on reclaiming abandoned mine land (AML) and decreasing or treating acid mine drainage (AMD).

Removing the spoils has been on Dickson City’s wish list, but the funding was never available, said Forconi. He estimates the total cost to remove the waste is around $6 million. The land in Dickson City has been owned by various people over the years.

"When they got the numbers back to remove the spoils pile, it just wasn't economically feasible for them to even develop it," said Forconi.

Current owner, Al Patel, is planning a housing development on the property, he said.

The spoils were from a breaker in Scranton, not Dickson City, he said.

"It's always been an eyesore," said Forconi. "It's almost to the point where a lot of people drive past it ... they're just used to it."

Remediating the impacts of the coal mining industry is widespread across the region.

Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine and Steam Train opened in 1962 in Schuylkill County. The deep mining industry was closing down at the time. A group of businessmen from the region kept it open as a tourist attraction and to help keep the miners employed.

“There's approximately two miles of open pits and high walls on the side of the mountain," said Ed Wytovich, member of the board of the directors for the tunnel and the steam train.

Ashland Community Enterprises received a $605,000 grant to do an engineering design and planning for reclamation work for the entire mountain, which Wytovich calls Ashland Mountain.

Famous Reading Outdoors has trails for motorized recreation on part of the mountain, and an Ashland Borough park is on the land. There’s some illegal activity and parts of the mountain can be dangerous, he said.

They plan to fill in the open old strip pits and some of the surface breaches from the old underground mine workings, said Wytovich.

The organization plans to keep a section of the Mammoth Pit open and put a fence over the top, mitigating any danger.

"So that people can stand at one end, where train runs in, and can see the difference between reclaimed and unreclaimed stripping pits," he said.

Farther north, bituminous coal was discovered in Blossburg in Tioga County at the end of the 1700s. It was first mined in 1806 — polluting the Tioga River for over 100 years, said Andrew King, Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) Mine Drainage Program Coordinator.

The commission received a $68 million grant — the most of any organization — to create a highly-automated, active treatment plant, to clean up that pollution, said King.

The plant will focus on five mine discharges where water from the flooded coal mines taints the Tioga River.

“Those discharges are the reason that over 22 miles of the Tioga is listed as impaired," he said. "The majority of that is fishless."

In the underground mines, water becomes highly acidic — it dissolves iron and aluminum — and the pH changes. When the water hits the air, it turns orange.

The plant is going to use calcium hydroxide to raise the pH of the water, said King.

"That causes the iron and aluminum to precipitate out," he said.

Over 11 miles of pipe will run into the plant, King said. Then it will discharge the water back into Morris Run and Fall Brook, both tributaries of the Tioga River.

The around 58-mile Tioga is a tributary of the Chemung River, which flows into the Susquehanna River and then the Chesapeake Bay.

“Once this plant comes online, and almost directly, you'd be surprised how fast that change happens," he said. "Through the clean tributaries, you're going to have trout in the Tioga River.”

Other grant funded projects in the region:

Clinton County

  • Trout Unlimited Inc., $643,825; Robbins Hollow (Robbins Headwaters): The project will include seven acid mine drainage passive treatment systems within Robbins Hollow to sustain downstream trout populations.

Luzerne County 

  • Earth Conservancy, $1.4 million; Lower South Valley Energy Park: engineering and permitting work will be completed to reclaim approximately 3,000 acres of Abandoned Mine Land for construction of the Lower South Valley Energy Park. 
  • Plains Township, $321,500; Hilldale: the project will restore an approximately 40-acre property located in the Hilldale Section to reduce impacts of acid mine drainage and for future development. Restoration includes grading the site, topsoil and seeding and construction of a stormwater management basin. 

Northumberland County

  • Shamokin Creek Restoration Alliance, $422,320; Kulpmont West (Quaker Run Restoration): the project will remove existing box culverts, address stream impacts from abandoned underground coal mine subsidence areas and restore the stream.

Tioga County 

  • Headwaters Charitable Trust, $131,000; Arnot (No. 5 Design): the project will evaluate chemistry and flow of the Arnot Mine 5 acid mine drainage discharge and design a passive treatment system to treat that discharge to restore and protect Sawmill Creek and Johnson Creek. 
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.

You can email Kat at katbolus@wvia.org