Wilkes University

Oral Remarks

Testimony of Kenneth M. Klemow, Ph.D.
Certified Senior Ecologist and Botanist Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766
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

Prepared Oral Remarks

I want to thank the House Resources Committee for giving me the opportunity to say a few words about the ecological effects of mining in the anthracite region, which is actually a rather complex topic.

I'll try to hit the high points from the 10 page essay that I provided as written testimony. Also, I apologize for getting the date wrong on the original draft.

Ecologically, mining has left a profound environmental impact on northeastern Pennsylvania, and indeed one of the reasons that I chose to become an ecologist back in the 1970s was to help solve those problems.

To be fair to mine operators, most of the mining-related damage occurred before laws protecting the environment were enacted, and before the value of natural ecosystems was realized.

As I note in my essay, impacts of mining have affected both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, covering about 100,000 acres. In general, the ecological impacts of mining have been to reduce biological diversity and a number of ecological functions and values like productivity, water purification, erosion control, and sustainability.

Most of the damage to terrestrial systems has been caused by the deposition of a stony substrate that is infertile, has high concentrations of toxic minerals like iron and aluminum, has high acidity, and is poor at holding onto water. During warm summer days, strip mine substrates can exceed 150oF, like an asphalt parking lot.

As a result of those stressful conditions, plants have a difficult time revegetating mined sites. Normally we see a sparse community of scrubby species like gray birch, trembling aspen, blackberry, and spotted knapweed. Likewise, animal species are also relatively sparse because of lack of water and not enough food. Culm backs also create water pollution because they allow rainwater to infiltrate and mix with acid-bearing rocks.

Anthracite mining has also devastated thousands of acres of lakes, creeks, and wetlands, which are critical habitats. Large-scale earthmoving and deposition of mine spoil obliterated wetlands, lakes, and creekbeds. In many cases, creekbeds were either rerouted, or their paths were blocked, forcing water down into the mines. As a result, headwaters that contain clean water and otherwise high quality ecosystems are isolated from lower reaches of the watershed, which serves to reduce populations in the headwater areas.

Mining also causes an impact on water quality due to acid mine drainage. AMD is characterized by high levels of iron or aluminum that precipitate in the water and coat the bottom of the channel. Accumulated iron especially kills aquatic vertebrates and invertebrates alike, resulting in a dead stream. Recent studies on AMD-impacted creeks by some of my Wilkes students showed those creeks to be essentially dead.

Ecological degradation caused by mining can be fixed, to a large extent. Terrestrial systems are typically improved by regrading the site, and adding fertilizer and seed. That leads to a meadow-like condition. While certainly better than having culm bank, I have misgivings about that method, and think that a more sustainable smart reclamation approach, emphasizing reforestation with native species, needs to be instituted.

In terms of addressing aquatic pollution, we can do a variety of things that actually have a synergistic effect. First, we need to actively restore degraded stream channels, making them look and function as natural as possible. It is important to keep water on the surface and allow a good corridor to develop between headwaters and main rivers. Second, acid mine drainage can be addressed by passive techniques like wetlands. I was involved in a couple of wetland projects near Wilkes-Barre. The second began functioning last spring, and is now 97% efficient, removing 300 lbs of iron per day.

It is important that reclamation efforts done in a holistic fashion. While individual projects are important, having an integrated strategy whereby smart terrestrial reclamation is linked with sound ecologically-based aquatic reclamation will ensure the success of the entire process.

In a way, I think that its unfortunate that in the year 2000, we are still talking about fixing the environmental impact of mining. However, the reality is that to effect good reclamation, hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to carry out the needed assessments and designs, to put people on bulldozers, and to import the materials needed to make things work properly. If we don't, nature will fix itself, but I estimate that it will take 300-500 years for wounds to heal. Condemning this region to the current level of devastation for that period of time would be terrible public policy. We have the know-how and the will, we just need the resources. We can and must do better, and hope this committee can help.