Wilkes University

Environmental Effects of Mining

Testimony of Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D.
Certified Senior Ecologist and
WilkesUniversity, Wilkes-Barre, PA18766
Phone: 570-408-4758. FAX: 570-408-7862, e-mail: kklemow@wilkes.edu

Presented to the US House of Representatives Committee on Resources
Oversight Hearing on the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Needs
of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Fields

24 January 2000
Scranton, Pennsylvania

Written Essay
Environmental Effects of Mining in the Anthracite Region: Problems and Possible Solutions

The extraction and processing of anthracite coal caused an enormous environmental impact to nearly 100,000 acres of terrestrial and aquatic habitat throughout northeastern and east-central Pennsylvania. Original terrestrial forests were destroyed by strip mining and the deposition of culm material. Due to those activities, thousands of acres are marred by steep slopes and coarse substrates characterized by low fertility, toxic levels of certain elements, extreme drought, and high summertime temperatures. Natural revegetation has proceeded slowly on mine-impacted sites, resulting in sparse communities of low-value scrubby species. Ecological productivity, biological diversity, and recreation values are substantially lower on mined sites than on forested unmined areas. Animal life is also impaired due to insufficient food and water, and to extreme physical conditions.

Anthracite mining has also damaged aquatic communities like streams and wetlands. Mining caused physical loss to stream channel habitat and created acid mine drainage (AMD). Mining often isolates headwater streams from lower reaches in the watershed, leading to losses of biological diversity and productivity. The loss of wetlands by mining exacerbates downstream flooding, degrades the capacity for natural water filtration, and reduces biological diversity among wetland-dependent species. Millions of gallons of AMD enters waterways throughout the region, causing concentrations of dissolved iron, aluminum, and sulfate to exceed the tolerances of aquatic species. That AMD flows into major rivers like the Susquehanna and Lackawanna, contributing thousands of pounds of iron per day that coats the bed and migrates toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Corrective measures can be taken to address the ecological damage of mining. The methodologies employed are improving thanks to new research findings. Terrestrial reclamation typically involves regrading and fertilizing the site, and adding a mix of plant seeds, usually of grasses and legumes. The result is a meadow-like community that prevents erosion and can be used as pasture. However, that approach may prevent the formation of natural forests and may not be sustainable in the long run. A new reclamation paradigm may be needed to tailor restoration to the ultimate use of the site, and to encourage native woody species on those sites targeted for greenspace.

Mining-related damage to aquatic communities can also be corrected. Stream channels should be restored following newly developed ecological approaches that keep water on the surface, maximize biological diversity, and provide a continuous corridor connecting headwaters to major rivers. AMD can be ameliorated by use of passive approaches (wetlands, anoxic limestone drains) and by preventing its formation through stream channel restoration, reclamation of culm banks, and possibly injecting materials like fly ash into underground mine voids.

Solving the environmental problems of mining will require the collaboration of federal and state agency officials, scientists, and the private sector. Sufficient funding will be needed to pay for the expertise, labor, and materials needed to develop and execute a successful plan. The American Heritage River initiative should play a central role in coordinating the effort and securing funding.