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Abandoned Mine Reclamation Problems: Successes, Problems and Lessons learned

Source: The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (BAMR)
Pamela J. Milavec, Water Pollution Biologist, Ebensburg District Office

Pennsylvania’s most recent efforts at abandoned mine drainage (AMD) abatement began in 1992, with the establishment of the 10 Percent Set Aside Program using federal abandoned mine land grant funds. Funds used for AMD abatement have also included the Appalachian Clean Streams Initiative, bond forfeiture funds and Pennsylvania’s new “Growing Greener” program. To date, 19 AMD treatment facilities have been constructed by the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (BAMR) on 14 separate projects, with eight more facilities currently in construction.

Constructed facilities have run the gamut of available passive treatment options, including Pyrolusite® limestone beds, aerobic wetlands, anoxic limestone drains, vertical flow systems of different variations and semi-active lime dosing systems. Unforeseen problems have been encountered in both construction and operation of the various systems. The most common construction related problems have included encountering additional flows during excavation, leaking ponds and difficulties attempting to manipulate mine pool elevations. The most common operational problem so far has been dealing with odor complaints from nearby residents due to the use of compost in vertical flow systems, particularly when the discharges are intermittent. Significant plugging at the entrance to a Pyrolusite® bed has been a problem at one site. Finally, an evolving issue is the need for more frequent and significant maintenance than was initially envisioned with these systems.

Most of BAMR’s systems are operating successfully. Sites where drainage is properly entering and exiting the systems at the expected flow rate are showing very effective treatment results. In all of these cases, effluent water quality has met or exceeded expectations. Long-term results will likely be dependent upon the effectiveness of maintenance components integral to these systems and BAMR’s ability to provide resources needed for this maintenance. A site-specific water monitoring program is ongoing to provide chemistry and flow data for evaluation and to enhance subsequent system design. Biological stream monitoring is also underway to determine if desired results are being achieved. Much has been learned about passive treatment of AMD throughout the past decade, but the learning process is ongoing.

Pennsylvania’s long history of coal mining has left a legacy of scarred land and polluted streams. It is estimated that at least 2,500 miles (4022 kilometers) of stream are impacted by AMD. The Commonwealth’s earliest attempts to address these problems began in 1967 with the establishment of the Land and Water Reclamation Fund. This program provided for $200 million to address abandoned mine land problems, including AMD (Department of Environmental Resources, 1990). Operation Scarlift, as the abandoned mine portion of the Fund was called, achieved limited success with respect to AMD abatement and treatment. Projects included the development of a large number of watershed studies (which are still in use today), surface mine reclamation, mine sealing and the construction of several chemical treatment plants to treat AMD. While these chemical plants were largely successful, the cost to operate and maintain them was substantial. Several plants were subsequently shut down. It quickly became obvious that large-scale chemical treatment of AMD would be prohibitively expensive for the Commonwealth.

In the 1980s, as passive treatment technology began to emerge, the Commonwealth used some remaining Operation Scarlift funds to construct three passive treatment systems. These systems, which consisted of a combination of aerobic and anaerobic wetlands and ponds, were only partially successful in removing metals and did a poor job of neutralizing acidity. It was obvious that the technology had not yet reached the point where passive treatment could be successful.

In 1990, an amendment to the federal Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), allowed states to “set aside” 10 percent of their Abandoned Mine Land Trust grant to address AMD. Prior to this time, these funds could only be used to address health and safety problems on abandoned mine lands throughout the country. Pennsylvania’s 10 Percent Set Aside Program, which receives approximately $2 million per year, was established in 1992, with site evaluations beginning in 1993. The first AMD treatment systems were constructed in 1997. Also in 1997, the federal Office of Surface Mining established a program called the Appalachian Clean Streams Initiative (ACSI). This program provided additional funds to states in the Appalachian region to address AMD problems.

Most recently, in 1999, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Environmental Stewardship and Watershed Protection Act. Known as “Growing Greener”, it invests nearly $650 million over five years to protect and restore watersheds and reclaim abandoned mines. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation administers the 10 Percent Set Aside and ACSI programs and also receives funding from Growing Greener. These funding sources, as well as monies from the bond forfeiture program, provide the AMD abatement funding used by BAMR. While these funding sources are substantial, they pale when compared to the estimated $5 billion cost to address all the AMD problems in Pennsylvania.

Under these programs, 19 separate treatment facilities have been constructed. Many of the projects have been or are being constructed in partnership with a number of other agencies, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency’s 319 nonpoint source program, county conservation districts and local watershed associations.

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