Environmental Effects of Mining in the Anthracite Region: Problems and Possible Solutions
Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D.
Over the past 150 years, large parts of northeastern and east-central Pennsylvania have been affected by mining for anthracite coal. Mining practices have profoundly influenced the economy, social structure, politics, physical landscape, and natural ecology of the affected regions. My testimony given in this essay will largely focus on the environmental impacts, including the effect on the landscape and ecological relationships. Economic and social impacts will be mentioned only briefly. Comments about restoration strategies and needs will be provided at the end.
Understanding the impacts of coal mining requires a general knowledge of the geologic history of eastern Pennsylvania. Virtually all of the bedrock of northeastern and east-central Pennsylvania originated 300-360 million years ago, when the state was covered by a huge sea. Fine rock particles settled and formed sedimentary deposits of sandstone and shale. However, certain areas were dominated by swamp forests. Individual plants did not decompose when they died, but instead they underwent a chemical change, forming vast coal deposits. Those deposits became buried by additional sedimentation, often forming alternating layers of coal and non-coal sedimentary rock. The coal forming process was most prevalent in certain parts of eastern Pennsylvania, forming four major coal fields separated by areas that lack anthracite.
Subsequently, a series of geologic events involving mountain formation, erosion, and glaciation produced the current ridge-and-valley topography of the region. Following the recession of the most recent glacier 12,000 years ago, eastern Pennsylvania became vegetated by a lush forest composed of evergreens like white pine and hemlock, and by hardwoods like oaks, chestnut, birch, maple, and ash. Beginning 250 years ago, the original forest was cleared for timber and agriculture by white settlers. Thousands of acres remain in agriculture or have become urbanized. However, large areas have reverted back to natural forest. Such lands are ecologically sound, supporting diverse, productive terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Our forests are valuable for recreation, timber management, and watershed uses.