CAMBRIA COUNTY, Pa. — A pipe is spewing toxic water into Topper Run from the old Maryland No. 1 coal mine here.Take a deep breath, and gag on the stench of rotten eggs.
The mine has been belching acid water since it was abandoned in the 1960s. No fish swim where this water flows, and iron in discharges has stained the streambed orange, while aluminum has tinted rocks white.
Several dirty discharges are contributing to the degradation of the Little Conemaugh River Watershed, one of the most polluted in Pennsylvania. The contamination is evident where the discolored Little Conemaugh joins clear-running Stonycreek in Johnstown.
The Topper Run discharge pipe is not the only source of mine pollution here. Another dumps into Sulfur Creek, surrounded by a mound of bright orange.
“We’re standing on probably 3 or 4 feet of iron,” said Robb Piper, manager of the Cambria County Conservation District, a government agency. Two geese are swimming in an adjacent pond.
Acid mine drainage is highly acidic and loaded with heavy metals. The acid forms as surface water and shallow groundwater come in contact with sulfur-bearing minerals, creating sulfuric acid. Heavy metals then leach from rocks that come in contact with the acid, creating what can be toxic to people, animals and plants.
From a bird’s-eye view, one can see miles of orange streams polluted with acid mine drainage flowing from abandoned mine shafts. In all, mine wastes have fouled more than 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams, many of which drain into the Chesapeake Bay.
“I question whether they should be allowed to pollute waters of the commonwealth,” said John Dawes, head of the environmental group Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.
His group, which has ties to the Heinz Endowments, distributes more than $1 million in grants every year to fund cleanup efforts statewide. Dozens of the projects have involved remediation of streams polluted by mine dumps.
But efforts to stem acid mine discharges remain in legal limbo.
Many of those pollution sources belong to mines that pre-date the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
And government funding for reclaiming abandoned mines has fallen far short of what’s needed.
Moreover, political fights in Washington, D.C., have ensnared cleanup cash as lawmakers from the West and their counterparts from the East squabble over where money should be directed.
Dangerous and ugly
Acid water dumps are not the only problem polluting land and streams in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining areas.
Towering black-gray waste coal piles in the Cambria County borough of Nanty Glo drain into Blacklick Creek and have for decades been a part of the landscape along with old mining equipment.
The name Nanty Glo, which translates to “coal ravine” in Welsh, is the sister village of Nantyglo in Wales.
The waste piles “and water are the worst thing, the worst thing we got,” Piper said. “There’s complacency. People feel that’s the way it is.”
Said Dawes of another waste pile: “This is an eyesore. This has got to be [cleaned up]. And those people seeing this from the town!”
The waste piles also catch fire and are a magnet for all-terrain vehicle daredevils whose machines ride up and down the mountainous piles’ steep faces.
Pennsylvania has about 29,000 acres of abandoned mine sites, including 30 or so underground mine fires.
“Those are very expensive to deal with. And we have been monitoring a number for several years,” said Eric Cavazza, acting director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
And new problems continue to emerge — from fires to cave-ins.
“In essence, probably at the end of the [abandoned-mine program], Pennsylvania will have some hazard features that will not be addressed,” Cavazza said.
The federal Office of Surface Mining’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program taxes the coal industry to fund cleanup efforts nationwide, with some money set aside for restoring water quality.
OSM handed out almost $500 million in fiscal 2012, including $67.2 million for Pennsylvania.
Yet some of the money goes to so-called certified states and tribes like Wyoming and the Navajo Nation that have already finished cleaning up their abandoned coal mines. And noncertified states like New Mexico are lobbying to use the coal money to clean up abandoned gold and uranium mine sites.
The issue came to a head with recent reports that Wyoming — which got more than $150 million from AML this fiscal year — has used its reclamation money for road construction and medical facilities. Wyoming has also reclaimed more than 1,051 mine sites.
At a recent congressional hearing on AML, Thomas Baker, board chairman for the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, said the program’s cash “should be directed to where the greatest needs are for the cleanup and restoration of habitat on pre-law coal mines, and not be tied so heavily to where coal is mined currently.”
But efforts to distribute money based on need, including proposals by President Obama, have been trashed. Even states like Pennsylvania are skeptical of disturbing a landmark AML agreement crafted in 2006 when the program came up for reauthorization.
Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, an association of mining states, chafes at proposals to eliminate funding to certified states and tribes. “It’s pretty much a half-baked argument,” he said. “That’s pretty much the way the amendments were structured.”
The 2006 amendments to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed just a few days before Christmas.
Environmentalists considered it a gift to industry and coal in their stockings.
Dawes of Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds recalled cringing at a provision that reduced how much the coal industry paid in reclamation fees.
The National Mining Association says the industry has paid more than $7 billion into the AML fund. Federal and state laws require new mines to limit pollution releases, clean up after they’re done and post bonds in case they go bust.
But much of the debate was not about cleaning up old mines.
“The 2006 amendments were about shoring up the combined benefits fund for the United Mine Workers,” Conrad said.
By Congress’ continuing to collect taxes on the coal industry for reclamation of old abandoned mines, the UMW could continue using interest from the AML to fund health and pension benefits.
Regional disputes also dominated the debate.
Certified Western states like Montana and Wyoming, which is now the nation’s top coal producer, chafed at having companies in their backyards pay for problems east of the Mississippi River. They are still not willing to give up money they say belongs to them.
The grand bargain gave states whatever money was left in the AML fund, but from the U.S. Treasury in a series of payments ending in 2014.
Lawmakers couldn’t deplete the fund without jeopardizing miner benefits. The fund’s balance stands at about $2.4 billion.
The amendments established a complex scheme for distributing funds based on need and past and present coal production. States follow guidelines for using the money, with health and safety hazards taking priority. They can set aside up to 30 percent of their grants for acid mine drainage.
“It was all of those interests across the board that were a part of grand compromise that was reached in those amendments,” Conrad said. “There are webs within webs and loops within loops here that are fairly complex. This was not a simple compromise.”
Cavazza of the state DEP said state leaders decided to invest the maximum on water improvements. “The consensus from all those stakeholder meetings favored us setting aside our full 30 percent every year to deal with mine drainage,” he said.
‘This money belongs to my state’
Madeline Roanhorse, AML manager for the Navajo Nation and president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs, defends certified jurisdictions like hers getting AML dollars despite the large number of problem mine sites in Eastern states.
“Again, these are funds that are collected from states and tribes,” she said. “And it should go back to the states and tribes.”
Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) in a hearing last year was more blunt: “That money belongs to my state, not the federal government.”
Without a similar funding stream for hardrock cleanups, certified states and tribes often use that money to close old hardrock mine shafts or get rid of up radioactive pollution from long-abandoned uranium mines, a pervasive problem in the Navajo homeland.
Plus, she said, many mining problems linger. “We do find new sites,” she said. “We do get reports from the communities, and some are coal sites, and we do go back and do out assessment.”
Despite the delicate politics around the 2006 amendments, a new compromise is moving through Congress.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman’s bill (S. 987) has passed in the Senate and has bipartisan support in the House.
The New Mexico Democrat’s bill gives noncertified states like New Mexico more leeway in using coal AML funds for cleaning up non-coal sites.
“It’s so awful,” Pennsylvania environmentalist Dawes said about the bill, worried about the thousands of coal AML sites pending in his state. At least, advocates say, the bill lets states deposit more money into their accounts for acid mine drainage.
The White House has said it would rather enact a new fee on hardrock mining to pay for cleanups of those mines and create a competitive grant program to distribute AML coal dollars to priority sites. It has proposed the idea in recent budget blueprints.
“If you’re diverting money to non-coal reclamation and we already are going to have a shortfall of funds to clean up the problems that exist, we’re just going to leave a larger inventory of unreclaimed [coal sites],” said Al Whitehouse, a federal mine reclamation specialist.
But Obama’s proposal, supported by many Democrats, has failed to get traction amid opposition to increasing industry taxes and with states wary of losing control of reclamation funding.
Proposal could clean up Maryland No. 1 mine
With the AML funding shortfall, Cambria County relies on a mix of federal, state and private cash for its programs. It has cleanup partnerships with businesses and environmental groups.
Environmentalists have pressed Pennsylvania power plants to use the coal-waste heaps for fuel. Piper said three plants around Ebensburg, the Cambria County seat, have helped wipe out 25 million tons of waste coal and reclaim more than 500 acres of abandoned mine land.
Piper of the Cambria County Conservation District laments efforts by anti-coal environmentalists and the Obama administration that could force the plants to close.
“To people who don’t understand much about this,” he said, “that’s another [coal plant] off the grid.”
Piper also hopes U.S. EPA allows Rosebud Mining Inc. to expand its Cambria County mine, which would include a water treatment facility for the old Maryland No. 1 and potentially others in the county. It would be a dream come true for Piper with the company agreeing to foot the bill.
But state regulators and the company are in talks with EPA about what level of treatment to require. Piper worries that EPA’s asking the company to treat the dump to drinking water standards would kill the entire effort.
“The goal is to actually restore waters to some usable level, aquatic life fishable-type level,” Cavazza said. He added that money designated for acid-mine drainage efforts often go to high-priority cleanups, with others having to wait.
Using $35,000 in federal funds from OSM and grants from the state’s Growing Greener program, the conservation district is building a “passive treatment” facility. A series of limestone ponds would help cleanse tainted water and lower its acidity before flowing back into Trout Run.
“There’s a tremendous need in Pennsylvania for restoration of streams impacted by mine drainage,” said Cavazza. “I’m sure the commonwealth would welcome more money to deal with the problems.”