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Coal Downturn Makes It Harder To Clean Up Its Dirty Past

When she was growing up, Julie Bundy’s parents forbade her from playing on the "slate dumps." That was their shorthand for the hundred-foot-tall pile of loose rubble that sat right in the middle of Fredericktown, the southwestern Pennsylvania coal town where her grandparents lived.

“My grandparents lived in the yellow house on the corner with the slate dumps in the back yard. As long as I can remember, it was there,” Bundy says.

Bundy, 36, now lives across the street from the dumps, a coal-refuse pile left over from a defunct mining operation that ended decades ago.

“In the summertime, you don't see it too much. Once the leaves have grown in, it doesn't look horrible,” she said. “The only time I really notice it is when the teenagers come down either on their quads or dirt bikes.”

The pile was created before modern environmental regulations required mines to clean up their mess. Decades ago, companies just left piles like these behind when a mine stopped making money. Because of this, Pennsylvania has been left with hundreds of these sites—the most of any state in the country.

“We were a leader in mining for a very long time,” says Eric Cavazza, director of the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation in the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “We fueled a couple World Wars and the Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, we're left with many problems from that.”

Cavazza is in charge of overseeing the state’s estimated $15 billion worth of abandoned mine clean-ups. But his funding source keeps shrinking. A key part of the problem is the federal government pays for abandoned mine clean-up by assessing a fee on current coal production. With coal production at its lowest pointin 30 years, there’s simply less money coming in to pay for clean-ups.

Cavazza estimates his grant this year will be about $3.5 million, or 6 percent, less compared to last year because of the slowdown in the coal industry. And that’s had an impact on what projects his agency can take on.

"We've begun to back off some of the really big projects we were hoping to get done when we were getting larger grants," Cavazza says.

This year, Pennsylvania will get $43 millionof the $225 million distributed through the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Nationwide, there's a backlog of more than $4 billion worth of "high priority" abandoned mine projects, according to the agency. These are projects that endanger the health and safety of surrounding communities.

Standing on top of the Fredericktown pile, Cavazza said he’d like to clean it up but doesn’t have the money.

“I definitely think had we continued to get the grants the size we were getting about three or four years ago, this project would be done probably within the next couple of years,” he said. “But we're probably going to be able to tackle maybe one per year. And there's a lot of them.”

Pennsylvania’s nation-leading inventory of abandoned mine lands includes waste coal piles, abandoned highwall mines, underground fires and mines that leach acid drainage into rivers and streams.

Most of these nuisances were created before the passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which required operators to post bonds on their mines as a guarantee they wouldn’t just walk away, leaving behind scars on the landscape. By 1977, a third of all coal mined in the U.S. had been mined in Pennsylvania, Cavazza says.

The Fredericktown pile is a good example of all the problems that can come from this legacy. The pile literally backs up onto peoples’ houses, overlooking backyards. Hardly any trees will grow on it. It’s unstable, and it erodes and blocks streams. It also contributes to the region’s acid mine drainage problem.

The pile is made up of waste coal, which contains high amounts of shale and pyrite. When water and oxygen flow over them, they create an acidic stew that leaches metal into streams.

“You see this lighter colored material?” Cavazza says, picking up a dark rock with what looks like white powder on it. “When it rains, this is like the instant coffee of mine drainage. It’ll immediately dissolve in water and get carried away. And it's highly acidic.”

In fact, the resulting runoff from legacy mines is so acidic, it will drop the pH in streams to 3—the same level as vinegar.

“Fish just can't live in an environment with a pH of say, 3,” says Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute. “That just pickles them.”

Ziemkiewicz says refuse piles like the one in Fredericktown can often pose a problem because of their location.

“A lot of these refuse piles are in fairly remote areas, up in headwater locations. And because the acid is so concentrated coming out of these refuse piles, even though the volume is not gigantic, they can wipe out many miles of headwater streams that would otherwise be very valuable,” he says.

Julie Bundy would like to see the pile removed. She has little kids, and she says “shady characters” sometimes park their cars at the pile and go up on it. She says it didn’t always look like it does now.

“I know my neighbor told me one time it was a farm. There were apple orchards,” she says. “It was very beautiful at one time. And then, this happened.”

This story comes to us from Allegheny Front, a news magazine focusing on the environment in Pennsylvania.

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