Pittsburgh, PA
August 14, 2022
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
Health & Science
Place an Ad
Running Calendar
Travel Getaways
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  Health & Science >  Science Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
Crisis looms as flooded mines discharge acid water into Monongahela

Monday, February 10, 2003

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Think of Paul Ziemkiewicz, despite the ethnicity evident in his eye chart of a last name, as someone akin to that Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.

Online map:

Fairmont mine pool flooding, in pdf format

You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view these files.


In 1997, Ziemkiewicz, director of the National Mine Land Reclamation Center at West Virginia University in Morgantown, was one of the first to see iron-orange water bubbling out of a Consol Energy mine through fissures in the bottom of Buffalo Creek near Fairmont, West Virginia.

"That breakout under Buffalo Creek wasn't acidic, but it stained the creek bottom iron-orange and sent a plume into the Monongahela River," Ziemkiewicz said.

Consol plugged the fissures with grout and began siphoning water from the mine to its Dogwood Lakes treatment plant, under terms of a consent agreement it signed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

But the next time water breaks out of a mine along the 125 miles of Monongahela River from Fairmont to Pittsburgh, the story may not have such a happy ending.

That's because honeycombed under the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia in the Monongahela River drainage are more than 1,200 mines, all but 10 of them abandoned or shut down. Those abandoned mines are either already flooded or rapidly filling with water that can be highly acidic and carry a toxic load of iron, aluminum, manganese, lead and mercury into the Monongahela River and its tributaries.

For the past five years, Ziemkiewicz and a team of researchers from West Virginia University, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University have been measuring the size of the underground mine voids along the Monongahela, Youghiogheny and Ohio rivers and how fast they are filling up.

And they have been trying to figure out where these mine pools might spill out and how big those discharges might be.

Thus far, they have found flooded mine voids covering 400 square miles -- an area almost two-thirds the size of Allegheny County. As water floods 100 additional mines that have closed or been abandoned in the past 30 years, the discharges will become more numerous and potentially more deadly to aquatic life, the researchers predict. The discharges would also affect river recreation and cause problems for more than half a dozen public water suppliers that draw from the Mon.

And the problem would worsen if mining companies quit the business or go bankrupt, as LTV and Bethlehem Steel did last year.

Already, 13.4 billion gallons of mine water a year flows into the Monongahela River, a third of it untreated.

"Those mines are like underground tanks with a fixed capacity. If nothing is done, we will start seeing more breakouts occurring in creek bottoms and in the sides of the river," Ziemkiewicz said.

"It's not a crisis at this point. We have some lead time to figure out where the mines will discharge and how much they'll discharge," Ziemkiewicz said. "But at the very least we will see large plumes of iron-stained water flowing down the river. And if the mining industry shuts down and its treatment capacity is lost, I'm pretty sure we would see bad water all the way down to Pittsburgh."

Acid creep

Back in 1965, the Monongahela River around Morgantown, W.Va., had the same acidity as Coca-Cola, but the pop contained more life, if you could believe the advertising.

"You stuck a finger in the Mon then and it would sizzle," said Ray George, the EPA's spokesman in Charleston. Back then, he did water sampling. "It was a dead river with no biological activity at all."

The Mon was just one of the many creeks and rivers that died because of acid mine discharges. The DEP estimates that more than 1,700 miles of flowing water in Pennsylvania continue to be degraded by the old mine discharges.

The acidic water is produced by a chemical reaction that occurs in the mines when pyrite -- also known as "fool's gold" -- is exposed to water and air during mining. The reaction forms sulfuric acid and dissolved iron. Depending on the local geology, the water that collects in a mine can also absorb aluminum, manganese, lead and mercury before the mine floods and the water pushes out.

State mining laws and the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 attempted to remedy the problem by requiring mining companies to remove acidity and metals from mine water discharges.

Mining companies began treating their discharges, pumping mine water through tons of cheap limestone to buffer the acid and turn the discharges alkaline. The alkalinity of that water masked the acidic discharges into the Monongahela River of the 1,000 smaller mines abandoned since the early 1900s.

But as the number of active mines in the Monongahela River drainage has dwindled to under a dozen, more and more acid is finding its way into streams and the river.

"It's been a free ride until now but, when they stop pumping and treating at the closed mines, that buffering goes away and that starts to take its toll on the Mon," George said. Ten years ago, he started the Eastern Mine Drainage Federal Consortium, an ad hoc group of federal and state agencies, to seek answers to the mine flooding problems throughout the Monongahela River basin.

"No one wants to be Chicken Little, and say the Mon will revert back to what it was in the 1960s, but if we choose to do nothing, there will be consequences. If we choose to do something, there will be a heavy price tag."

Two immediate threats

The Shannopin Mine in Greene County closed in 1993 and has been filling ever since. The Pennsylvania DEP has tried to seal shafts and portals but it continues to fill. By next year, it could flood, Ziemkiewicz said, and discharge 350 gallons a minute of highly acidic, iron-orange water into Dunkard Creek, two miles from the Mon.

The DEP estimates it will cost $810,000 to build a treatment facility there and up to $2.8 million a year for the first two years to treat the discharge. As the quality of the discharge improves, treatment costs could drop to $1.6 million a year.

Another early trouble spot identified by Ziemkiewicz's Monongahela Basin Mine Pool Project is an interconnected string of abandoned mines in northern Greene County near Clarksville that includes the Clyde Mine, once owned by LTV, and the Gateway, Pitt Gas, Mather and Marianna mines. They could begin discharging 2,300 gallons a minute into Ten Mile Creek, another Monongahela River tributary, within a year.

"The Clyde Mine has a checkered history and when it closed we had an immediate pollution problem at the mouth of Ten Mile," said Scott Roberts, chief of DEP's Office of Mineral Resources Management. "In 1996 we had LTV put in a treatment plant, but it's in bankruptcy. If they turn those pumps off we will see an immediate discharge into the creek."

Roberts said there are currently 257 mine discharge sites being treated in the state, but many operators are on shaky financial ground and mining bonds won't foot the bill if they go bankrupt.

"Bonding is not going to work to solve this problem," Roberts said. "The costs we're talking about for treatment don't end."

Treating discharges that mining companies walk away from will put a financial strain on Pennsylvania and West Virginia. In Pennsylvania, the annual treatment costs could run to $15 million just at recently closed mines. Building treatment facilities at the thousands of long-abandoned mines that riddle the state would cost $5 billion.

The DEP established a $2 million trust fund to finance continuing treatment operations at five closed LTV mine sites until the end of this year, and Roberts is confident the bankruptcy court will award the state up to $25 million to provide perpetual treatment.

In November, the DEP ordered BethEnergy to continue to pump and treat the discharges from bankrupt Bethlehem Steel Co.'s 10 mines in Cambria, Somerset, Butler and Washington counties.

Roberts said Pennsylvania has been working with mining companies to set up trust funds to generate income that would pay for future treatment costs. It's been a tough sell. A trust fund for the 10 Bethlehem Steel mines would require $44 million.

"In my view," Roberts said, "this is the largest environmental issue we have to deal with in Pennsylvania."

Watch continues

Ziemkiewicz and his team of researchers are continuing to map mines and monitor mine discharges because treatment costs will vary depending on how much water comes out of the mines and where it exits.

Consolidating treatment will be less costly than piping discharges to existing treatment facilities.

Roberts said his bureau is reviewing a proposal to use discharges from the Shannopin Mine in a new power plant in northern West Virginia.

"The power plant would treat the water from the mine and then heat it to produce steam to operate its turbines," Roberts said. "That would be the most effective way to reuse and recycle that water. If the plant is built, it could also use water from seven other mines."

Another alternative under consideration is treating the mine water inside the mines before it is discharged. That could be done by gradually feeding an alkaline compound into the mines to neutralize the acid or introducing microbes that generate alkalinity by essentially reversing the chemical process that produces sulfuric acid.

"The volume of water that we have to treat is so large that there's no way we could use passive treatment methods. Those would take up too much space," Ziemkiewicz said. "Treatment in the mines is the best way."

But it is not a way that has been used on a project the size of the Mon basin.

"Everyone says it's the way to go, but no one has done it successfully," said Robert Hedin, a former U.S. Bureau of Mines research scientist and a consultant on the WVU study. "You can know where the water is and pump in alkalinity but there's a zillion flow paths and rooms in those mines. If an alkaline sludge forms, the water will just go around it and you won't get the effect you want at the discharge."

"We have to be able to show it works on a mass level," said Davitt Woodwell, regional director of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, who has been meeting with researchers about the mine discharges.

"It's inevitable that the discharges will happen. It's not inevitable that they will have dire consequences," Woodwell said. "But there's not much time to work things out given the scope of the problem."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections