Saturday, January 27, 2024

Bay Journal: Abandoned Mine Land Getting Makeover In Northeastern PA

It’s rare for a nonprofit group to be entrusted with a $17.5 million state grant for the complex mission of reclaiming abandoned mine land in Pennsylvania.

But that’s only the latest of many grants awarded to the Earth Conservancy because of its track record for getting things done.

The latest grant, believed to be the largest that Pennsylvania has given to a nonprofit for abandoned mine land cleanup, will restore the headwaters of Nanticoke Creek, which flows into the Susquehanna River in the northeastern part of the state. 

The project includes “daylighting” the creek, which has been driven underground by the legacy of past mining activity and picks up acid mine drainage before reappearing at the surface.

The Earth Conservancy has an expansive mission: to repair the landscape, restore a local economy devastated by the collapse of the mining industry and provide more open space for recreation.

And what this brain trust of 38 community leaders, public officials, college officials, private sector engineers, architects and others has done with 16,500 acres of abandoned mine land has garnered accolades.

After building a reputation for melding partners and technical know-how, state and federal grants have flowed to the group to the tune of $62 million as it restores scarred lands piece by piece. 

Much of the land is slated to serve recreation, conservation and green space needs.

The group formed in 1992 to scoop up the far-flung holdings of the bankrupt Blue Coal Corp., the major employer in the region going back into the 1800s.

The holdings include roughly 4,000 acres of barren and still-polluting waste land, the legacy of deep mining and surface mining for anthracite coal. 

Left behind were coal breaker plants, culm piles, waste-water strip pits, highwalls, coal car railroads and deep gouges in the earth. The landscape was dubbed “black desert.”

The group received $14 million toward the $16 million purchase price of the land from the U.S. Department of Defense, which was considering using the site for a plant that would remove materials from obsolete or excess munitions. 

When the project stalled, the group came up with a plan to slowly erase what had become a seemingly permanent eyesore and a sad reminder of the past.

“It was this holistic perspective of doing all different things. Obviously, it was repairing the environmental damages, but it was also [offsetting] the economic loss that occurred because of the closings,” recalled Terry Ostrowski, president and CEO of the conservancy.

But no matter how the land was to be used, it had to first be repaired, the master plan stipulated.

Several thousand acres have been graded, recontoured and prepared to support vegetation again. Streams have been repaired and protected with streamside buffers of native trees and other plants.

Some 20 million tons of waste coal has been hauled away by truck to a specialized power plant to produce electricity, though the plant is currently not running.

The conservancy has built three treatment systems to mitigate acid mine drainage. 

One is a wetlands-based filtering pond that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regards as the first to prove that such passive natural systems can be effective.

There have been challenges along the way. 

Ostrowski tells the story of a land developer from out of state who flew in, took one look at the black mine spoils pocking the landscape and told the driver to take him back to the airport.

Despite that early cold shoulder, the Conservancy has received $62.3 million in state and federal grants so far. 

Approximately 2,030 acres have been reclaimed and put into uses that create jobs and tax revenue.

Those uses include 7-million-square-feet of warehouse distribution centers, as well as residential developments, leased farmland, a composting facility, a state police headquarters, a multi-use arena, a fueling facility for municipal vehicles, a fire-training facility and more.

The Conservancy recently completed a housing market study in preparation for possibly using some of its reclaimed properties for affordable housing.

Acreage reclaimed by the Conservancy’s first project is now part of the Luzerne County Community College. 

A five-year Environmental Workforce Training Program created by the Conservancy taught 74 people how to do environmental restoration work and earned a Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence.

On the open space side, the master plan set a goal of using 10,000 of the total 16,500 acres for recreation, conservation and green space. 

Some 6,000 acres have been donated or sold at a discount to expand Gifford Pinchot State Forest and state game lands. Three trail systems have been opened so far, totaling 12.5 miles.

Through the years, the Conservancy also has donated 755 acres to 20 communities for such things as streamside parks, community gardens, ballfields, church picnic grounds, municipal parking lots, historical sites and flood protection.

Still, some people cite the group’s name and demand to know why all the land isn’t being preserved.

“There will be people who come up and say, ‘Oh, you’re a conservancy. Why are you developing this land?’” Ostrowski said. “The original intent was not to preserve all 16,000 acres as it was. It was really to utilize those former mine lands to fill in the voids that occurred when the local coal industry left.”

That leaves about 4,000 acres of abandoned mine lands not yet assigned a future use.

One possible use is a 757–1,167-acre solar farm. Another is a 2,500-acre playground for off-road vehicles. Gun and archery ranges and a paintball course might also be included.

Meanwhile, the upcoming work to restore nearly 3 miles of streambed will be as challenging as any the Conservancy has done.

It involves not just reconnecting the headwaters of Nanticoke Creek, but first rescuing the waters that have in places disappeared underground by flowing into mines or sinking below the earth where coal seams have collapsed. 

The once high-quality water that eventually rejoins the surface is a gaudy orange, rendered lifeless by acid mine drainage.

“The stream, for the most part, is pretty [devoid] of life. Where it reaches the Susquehanna, it’s orange. It may never reach high quality, sadly, but we would like to see it taken off the impaired stream list. That would be an incredible goal,” Ostrowski said.

Some sections of the vanished creek have been dry for so long that mature trees grow in what was the streambed.

 In one location, the channel will be rerouted because houses were built beside the old bed and would now be in a flood zone.

The work is being funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection through its Abandoned Mine Lands and Acid Mine Drainage Grant program.

[How Clean Is Your Stream?

[The draft 2024 report has an interactive report viewer that allows you to zoom in to your own address to see if the streams near you are impaired and why.

[Click Here to check out your streamsClick Here for a tutorial on using the viewer.

[Next Grant Round Open

[DEP is now accepting applications for the next round of federally-funded local AML/AMD Grants.  The deadline for applications is February 19.

[DEP has also set deadlines for two other rounds in 2024-- June 3 and September 23.

[Visit DEP’s Local AML/AMD Grant Program webpage for all the details.]

(Photo: Terry Ostrowski, President & CEO of Earth Conservancy.)

(Reprinted from Chesapeake Bay Journal.)

Resource Link:

-- DEP Awards $101.1 Million In Federally-Funded Grants To Support Local Abandoned Mine-Related Restoration; Deadline For Next Round Of Grants Feb. 19  [PaEN]

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-- Mountain Watershed Assn. Files Petition To Designate Parts Of Donegal Township Unsuitable For Coal Mining In Westmoreland County  [PaEN] 

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[Posted: January 27, 2023]  PA Environment Digest

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