ABANDONED MINE RECLAMATION

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Based on EC’s original Land Use Plan, 4,000 acres of abandoned mineland required reclamation.  It’s a lengthy and expensive process.  However, by repairing the damage, environmental rehabilitation and positive, productive reuse of the land can result.

FAQs

Anthracite Mining in Northeastern PA

Pennsylvania contains two main coal types: bituminous and anthracite. Bituminous coal is fairly common.  Mined mostly in western PA, it has a carbon content of 75-85% and is used in widely in energy production and manufacturing.  Anthracite coal, which has a carbon content of 86% or more, is much rarer.  In fact, the majority of US anthracite is located in northeastern PA.  Anthracite creates a cleaner, hotter, and longer buring fuel. This is why it was crucial during the Industrial Revolution, powering America’s factories, propelling its transit systems, and heating its business and homes.

Anthracite was discovered in Pennsylvania in the late 1700s near Pottsville, PA, part of the southern anthrciate coalfield.  Over the next several decades, additional anthracite deposits were found, including the northern anthracite coalfield, which extends from Mocanaqua to Forest City.  Concurrently, combustion technology, mining techniques, and transportation systems grew.  And this allowed the Wyoming Valley to prosper.

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. The Knox Mine disaster expedited the end when on January 22, 1959, a tunnel dug underneath the Susquehanna River collapsed. Twelve miners were killed and miles of underground mine workings were flooded. In the wake of the accident, Knox Coal closed. 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 in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Why Reclaim?

Northeastern Pennsylvania is understandably proud of its mining heritage.  Anthracite fueled America’s Industrial Revolution, and the industry attracted and provided for thousands.  Nevertheless, pre-regulatory mining significantly damaged local lands and watersheds.  Pennsylvania has more than 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands (AML) in 45 of its 67 counties – higher than any other state. Associated water pollution contaminates more than 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania waterways.  On the surface, unreclaimed sites are characterized by

  • piles (a.k.a. banks) of mine spoils/culm,
  • highwalls,
  • pits,
  • abandoned/acid mine drainage,
  • sparse or nonexistent vegetation, and
  • remnant shafts/structures.

Areas that have been deep mined also have the potential for subsidence, usually due to the failure of the old, underground supports (i.e., pillars).  While sometimes the resulting depressions are small, other times they are quite large and can cause extensive damage.  Mine fires are another ongoing concern.  Regardless the source of combustion (e.g., lightning, burning trash), once ignited, a mine fire will burn continously, following the coal seams until its fuel source is used up – or a large-scale intervention occurs.  For instance, Earth Conservancy’s Laurel Run mine fire has been burning since 1915.  Pinpointing its location and sourcing financing for combatting it is difficult.  Unfortunately, residents and local ecosystems must deal with the impacts.  There’s an excellent article in The Smithsonian Magazine relating to the issue of mine fires, featuring the Pennsylvania town of Centralia here.

Although many in the region have become accustomed to AMLs, these sites must be addressed.  They will not improve without intervention.  Through reclamation, EC seeks to mitigate the effects of historic mining practices and improve the region’s environmental and economic health.

EC's Work

Since purchasing the Blue Coal property in 1994, EC has reclaimed over 2,000 the 4,000 acres that were identified as mine-scarred in the original Land Use Plan.  Reclamation is expensive, however – at a minimum around $25,000/acre – and the process is lengthy.  Grant cycles can take more than a year and, even if an award is received, many preliminary steps must occur before earthwork begins, including procurement of consultants and contractors, site assessment and surveying, and development of engineering plans and specifications.  Permits must also be obtained from agencies like PA DEP and the Luzerne Conservation District, which can take up to a year.

Only once these steps are completed can reclamation begin.  Although work will vary according to the site, construction generally requires an ongoing grading of spoil materials, involving excavation and fill.  Stormwater management features like swales and basins may also be constructed.  Many times, the area is “capped” with topsoil to improve soil health.  After this, the entire area is seeded to stabilize the soil and prevent future erosion.  For some projects – and depending on future uses – more concentrated re-vegetation is necessary.

Paying for Reclamation

To support its work, EC relies on multiple funding streams.  This has included land sales, loans, and the sale of timber and culm.  Grants, however, are the most significant resource.  Regardless the funder – federal, state, county, corporate, or philanthropic foundation – grants are usually competitive.  Grant cycles, moreover, can take over a year from application to award.  That’s why EC is so appreciative of the agencies and organizations that have supported us, understanding our ongoing, phased approach in order to meet our long-term vision and goals.

Our two largest supporters are the US Environmental Protection Agency and the PA Department of Environmental Protection.  US EPA funding has come through the Brownfields Cleanup Program, made possible by Congressman Paul Kanjorski’s efforts to include abandoned minelands in the federal brownfields definition.  PA DEP has assisted our efforts through four key initiatives:  the Energy Harvest and Growing Greener/Growing Greener II Programs; and the Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act and AML Pilot Program, administered through PA DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

The Role of Cogeneration in Reclamation

On some projects, part of the reclamation process includes re-mining coal spoils (colloquially known as 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.  Moreover, the culm can then be used to generate electricity.

At present, seven of EC’s major projects have incorporated resource recovery in their scope of work, with over 20 million tons of coal refuse having been processed.  This means that at a 40% recovery rate, 8 million tons were burned in the generation of electricity.  Moreover, over 570 acres of legacy minelands have been readied for reclamation and reuse.  EC is also managing the re-mining of another 300-acre culm bank – the final site under EC’s ownership – located within what is now part of the Pinchot State Forest near Mocanaqua.  We estimate that 3.5 million tons of material will be processed from this bank, eliminating many environmental damages from this otherwise pristine mountainside recreational area. 

PROJECTS

BLISS BANK

Date:  In-Progress
Location:  City of Nanticoke, Hanover Township, Newport Township
Funded By:  US Environmental Protection Agency, PA Department of Environmental Protection, Earth Conservancy

WARRIOR RUN – SLOPE STREET

Date:  2015
Location:  Warrior Run Borough
Funded By:  US Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Conservancy

HANOVER 9

Date:  2014
Location:  City of Nanticoke, Hanover Township
Funded By:  US Environmental Protection Agency, PA Department of Environmental Protection, Earth Conservancy

HUBER BANK

Date:  2011
Location:  Hanover Township
Funded By:  Earth Conservancy, PA Department of Community & Economic Development

FRANKLIN BANK

Date:  2009
Location:  Hanover Township
Funded By:  Earth Conservancy, US Environmental Protection Agency

CONCRETE CITY

Date:  2009
Location:  City of Nanticoke, Hanover Township
Funded By:  US Environmental Protection Agency, Earth Conservancy

HANOVER 7A

Date:  2006
Location:  Hanover Township
Funded By:  PA Department of Environmental Protection, PA Department of Community & Economic Development, Luzerne County, Earth Conservancy