Danger underground: The projects aimed at reclaiming abandoned coal mines

Rep. Glenn Thompson said the Pennsylvania 5th Congressional District has more abandoned mine sites than any congressional district in the country. (WJAC)

EHRENFELD - Rep. Glenn Thompson said the Pennsylvania 5th Congressional District has more abandoned mine sites than any congressional district in the country.

Coal mining in western Pennsylvania has a history longer than the United States itself. While it was still just a colony, our great-grandfathers worked to dig coal out of the ground.

"We mined the coal that fueled the Industrial Revolution, WWI and WWII," Rep. Glenn Thompson said.

Mining went unchecked for decades because companies weren't required to clean up after themselves.

"What we accomplished with that coal mining was amazing, but the technology we had when that was done was not what we have today and so we have a lot of scars that we need to clean up," Thompson said.

That's where the Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation comes in. The bureau is responsible for resolving problems such as mine fires, mine subsidence, dangerous highwalls, open shafts and portals, mining-impacted water supplies and other hazards which have resulted from past coal mining (pre-1977).

"Forty-three of Pennsylvania's 67 counties have abandoned mine land features that are in need of reclamation," said Eric Cavazza, director of the bureau.

To fix the scars and protect towns from the hazards of nearby abandoned mines, the bureau launched a $30 million pilot program funded by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in 2016.

The goal is to clean up, or reclaim, 14 abandoned mine land sites.

Those projects are located in 10 Pennsylvania counties, including Cambria and Clearfield.

The pilot program was good news for towns like Ehrenfeld, in Cambria County.

"The mine drainage was all running into residents' yards and they couldn't sit out in their yards because it was all sloppy,"said Ray Plummer, mayor of Ehrenfeld.

The former mine located above the town of Ehrenfeld powered furnaces of nearby steel factories.

After being left behind, state officials said the 62-acre coal refuse piles were catching fire, becoming unstable, polluting the Conemaugh River and sliding toward the town.

“Pennsylvania is using the full $30 million to reclaim abandoned mine sites such as the Ehrenfeld refuse pile," Cavazza said.

The work at Ehrenfeld is being completed by Rosebud Mining Company. Project engineer, David Yingling, said 48 furloughed miners from Cambria, Clearfield and Somerset counties are part of the cleanup team.

“It maintained employment of a lot of people," Yingling said. "In addition to Rosebud employees, the project is supporting approximately 20 plus additional jobs.”

The Glen Richey Waterline Project in Lawrence Township, Clearfield County, is another example of current efforts.

It will include the construction and installation of a pump station, water storage tank and 13 miles of water line.

Officials said residents currently have wells and expereience red water that stains their clothes or no water come summertime.

“Individuals, families, homes and some businesses have drinking water that was impacted and this will allow them to put in a water line to be able to help these people,” Thompson said.

If the 14 pilot projects prove to be successful, it could persuade Congress to support a new piece of legislation; the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act of 2017 or the RECLAIM Act.

Thompson co-sponsored the bill. He said it would accelerate mine land reclamation and employ even more out-of-work miners.

“I actually offered amendment to it because I want to make sure the money goes to reclamation and doesn’t get spent on other things," Thompson said. "My amendment was adopted, which really confirmed that this is about cleaning up the environment, this is about the land and this is about the water.”

The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds (FPW) is a grant-making foundation that advocates for mine land cleanup.

Director John Dawes said the RECLAIM Act currently has bipartisan support in the House and has moved out of committee.

Dawes said the money it'd provide would be tremendous.

“It calls for spending $1 billion of the abandoned mine lands fund," Daws said. "Not taxpayer dollars, but dollars that were put in by the coal industry at 32 cents a ton.”

The officials pushing for more reclamation projects said it goes beyond just making the lands safer.

“All of the projects were doing under the pilot program are just reclaiming legacy abandoned coal mine sites that will hopefully provide some benefit to the local community for either economic revitalization, recreation and green space,” Cavazza said.

For projects like Ehrenfeld, it gives the estimated 230 people who live in the borough, hope.

"It's going to be great for the residents of Ehrenfeld," Plummer said. "They'll be able to sit out in their backyards, there will be no water running and they'll be able to plant gardens."

Cavazza said the DEP will continue to slowly chip away at the problem, reclaiming about 800 acres each year.

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