Abandoned Mineland Reclamation

Anthracite Mining in Northeastern Pennsylvania

There are two forms of coal in Pennsylvania:  bituminous and anthracite. Bituminous coal, generally found in western Pennsylvania, is relatively soft and burns easily. Anthracite coal, found mainly in northeastern Pennsylvania, is harder and longer burning, making it a more efficient fuel source.  For this reason, anthracite was a crucial factor in the Industrial Revolution, powering America’s factories, propelling its transit systems, and heating its business and homes.

Anthracite coal was discovered in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley in the late 1700s. The region, which generally follows the Susquehanna River southwest from Wilkes-Barre through Nanticoke City to Conyngham Township, prospered.  Each mine was part of a colliery, as were all buildings, plants, machinery, and equipment.  Breakers were a major feature.  Inside the hulking structures, men and boys split the coal, separating it by size and value, the castoffs now comprising the massive culm banks across the region. Around the collieries sprung up dozens of small towns, the businesses of which relied on the colliery for their success. The dominant mining practice was deep mining, where tunnels were dug increasingly deeper through coal seams in a cross-hatching manner. Strip mining, where mountainsides are simply blasted away to expose the coal, was also employed. By the 1800s, over one million tons of coal were being culled annually, transported via an extensive canal network for distribution along the East Coast.

By the mid-1900s, however, the mining industry began to decline.  Coal resources were exhausted, and alternative fuels – namely, gas and oil – were growing in popularity.  The Knox Mine disaster expedited the end.  On January 22, 1959, a section of the mine, which had tunneled under the Susquehanna River, collapsed.  The channel flooded. Twelve miners were killed.  In the wake of the accident, Knox Coal closed, and thousands of jobs were lost.  Other companies followed suit, some simply closing their doors, others declaring bankruptcy.  This, coupled with the changing energy market, marked the end of the mining era not only in northeastern Pennsylvania, but also across the Commonwealth.

Why Reclaim?

Northeastern Pennsylvania can be proud of its mining heritage.  Mining fueled America’s Industrial Revolution, and the industry attracted and provided for thousands in the region.  That said, pre-regulatory mining did significantly damage local lands and watersheds.  Pennsylvania has more than 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands in 45 of its 67 counties – higher than any other state. Associated water pollution contaminates more than 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania waterways.  Unreclaimed sites are characterized by

  • massive piles of mine spoils/culm
  • mine shaft openings
  • highwalls
  • mining pits
  • abandoned/acid mine drainage
  • sparse or nonexistent vegetation
  • remnant shafts/structures

In addition to these visible impairments, abandoned mines also have issues underground, including subsidences and mine fires.  Subsidences occur when underground mine supports collapse, which causes the ground to shift, and subsequently voids to appear at the surface.  Sometimes these are small – mere depressions in the ground (a.k.a., a sinkhole).  Other times, however, the breaks are so large that cars, homes, and roadways drop in. Mine fires may have a natural or human start (e.g., lightning or burning trash). Regardless the cause, once ignited, they burn endlessly along coal seams, until their fuel source is used up.  They are also difficult to detect, reach, and contain, making extinguishment nearly impossible.  Earth Conservancy’s Laurel Run mine fire, for instance, has been burning since 1915.  Unfortunately, mine fires often run under populated areas, exposing residents to smoke and noxious fumes.

Although many in the region have become accustomed to these sites, they must be addressed.  They will not improve unless we intervene.  Through the reclamation process, Earth Conservancy is working to mitigate the effects of historic mining practices on our lands, helping to restore environmental health to and boost economic potential in the Wyoming Valley.

Earth Conservancy:  Addressing the Past, Reclaiming the Future

Since its formation in 1992, Earth Conservancy has reclaimed nearly 2,000 of its 16,300 acres.  Reclamation is expensive, however:  over $42.8 million has been invested to date.  Additionally, the reclamation process is lengthy.  Grant cycles can take up to a year.  And even when a grant has been awarded, many preliminary steps must occur.  First, each site must be surveyed to stake out boundaries, assess topography, and identify hazards such as pits, sinkholes, or shafts.  Next, a qualified consultant develops site-specific plans and engineering specifications to estimate the amount of material to be moved, and to detail grading and filling operations.  Requisite permits then must be obtained from the Pennsylvania DEP and the Luzerne Conservation District.  Finally, illegally-dumped refuse and garbage must be removed.

Once these items have been completed, reclamation can then begin. Although work will vary according to each site, construction generally includes the removal and disposal of existing mine waste; or the grading of spoil materials, which are then covered with a substantial amount of fill.  Stormwater management features like channels, swales, and basins may also be constructed.  After this, the entire area is seeded to stabilize the soil and prevent future erosion.  For some projects, more concentrated re-vegetation is necessary, especially along natural waterways.

Paying for Reclamation

As a nonprofit, Earth Conservancy depends on outside funding to support its reclamation work.  Land sales, loans, timbering, and the sale of culm to cogeneration facilities are all resources.  Grants, however, are the most significant, and have ranged from federal, state, county, and local governments; to foundations; to the corporate sector.  One of our longtime supporters has been the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, specifically through its Brownfields Cleanup Program.  Through these awards, brownfields – or sites where redevelopment is hindered by the presence of hazardous contaminants – are targeted for assessment, remediation, and reuse.  Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski was instrumental in having abandoned minelands included in the Brownfields program.  Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has been another key partner.  Growing Greener, started by Governor Tom Ridge, and Growing Greener II, launched by Governor Ed Rendell, both have financed reclamation work. Additional support has come through the Energy Harvest Program and the Illegal Dump Cleanup Program.

New Uses for Old Culm

On some projects, part of the reclamation process includes re-mining coal spoils, or culm. Previously, the black piles of waste were unusable; no existing plant could generate enough heat to burn the residual coal. However, advancements in processing have made the high temperatures possible, making the culm valuable. Such an opportunity is an asset to any reclamation project, as the sale of the culm to cogeneration plants provides revenue that can be reinvested in restoration work.

Earth Conservancy has partnered with regional cogeneration facilities for some of its projects, to the benefit of both parties:  culm is removed from the site, revenue is generated, and eventually, electricity results. Such collaborations have resulted in the removal of over 2 million tons mine spoils from EC sites, and has yielded approximately 850,000 tons of usable material to generate electricity.