These photos are examples of the mine scarred lands that can be found around Northeast Pennsylvania and especially in Luzerne County.
A Brief History of Anthracite Mining in Northeast Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania produces two types of coal: bituminous and anthracite, and they are quite different. Bituminous coal is typically found in the western part of Pennsylvania, as well as the southern and western parts of the U.S, and is a relatively soft coal that breaks and burns readily and quickly. Anthracite coal is found in predominantly Northeast Pennsylvania and is a much harder and longer burning coal, which makes it more efficient and of higher quality.
Anthracite coal was the spark that fueled the American Industrial Revolution, supplying a quality product that produced the energy to propel the country’s growing factories, rail systems and heat for homes and buildings. At one time, the Wyoming Valley of Northeast Pennsylvania, which run generally from Wilkes-Barre in the north through Nanticoke City and finally to Conyngham Township, which was southwest of Wilkes-Barre. The Susquehanna River runs through the Wyoming Valley.
Coal was discovered here in the late 1700s. As new mining technologies were discovered, deep mining became the predominant form of mining in the region because it allowed the greatest amount of coal to be removed from the ground. Deep mining was essentially a series of tunnels crosshatched underneath the ground, going deeper through the mining “seams” until all the coal was extracted. Strip mining was also employed, which entails blasting mountainsides and then extracting the coal from the rock. Breakers were formed to process the coal and separate the differing qualities of coal as well and the waste material, called culm. It is the black mountains of culm that can still be seen today throughout the Wyoming Valley and beyond. Unable to support quality vegetative life, the piles have remained part of the landscape for decades.
At its height in the 1800s, the Wyoming Valley produced more than a million tons of coal a year that was transported via canal systems to major ports along the East Coast. Collieries, which included breakers and other related processing buildings, could be found everywhere throughout “the Valley”, and small towns sprung up around them. The small town economies relied on the work supplied by the collieries.
By the mid-1900s many mining operations had exhausted the available coal and the industry began to decline, helped by the advent of other energy sources such as gas and oil. The real end of mining in the Wyoming Valley began with the Knox Mine Disaster in 1959. A section of the Knox Mine, using the deep mining process, had extracted coal from underneath the Susquehanna River. On January 22, 1959, the section of the mine under the river collapsed, killing 12 miners. The accident and subsequent closing of the mine resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs for local workers. The accident coupled with the changing energy producing landscape spelled the end of a very profitable era for Northeast Pennsylvania. Many companies closed or went into bankruptcy and left the mine workings, machinery, pits, culm banks and workers to deal with the loss. This happened not just in the Wyoming Valley but across the entire state.
Today, Pennsylvania has more than 250,000 acres of abandoned mine lands, culm banks, highwalls, and mine shafts in 45 of its 67 counties, more than any other state in the nation. Additionally, water pollution in more than 5,000 miles of stream accompanies the environment ail problems left by the end of mining in the state.
Addressing the past, reclaiming the future
Since its formation in 1992, Earth Conservancy has reclaimed 1,663 of its 16,300 acres at a cost of $31.2 million, which averages a cost of almost $19,000 per acre. An additional 954 acres are in-process at an estimated cost of $58.1 million. Clearly, the reclaiming mine scarred land is slow and expensive. As costs for gas, material and labor increase, so does the cost of reclamation, which explains why the totals for in-process acreage is estimated at a higher rate than the actual cost of what has already been completed.
Reclamation of mine scarred lands is expensive for several reasons, some of which must take place prior to any land being touched. Before reclamation can begin:
- Each site must be surveyed and staked to delineate the site boundaries and determine its topography.
- Each site must be inspected for hazards such as stripping pits, sink holes or mine opening.
- Plans must be prepared that address the specific needs of each site.
- Engineering specs must be prepared by a qualified consultant that will estimate the amount of culm and waste material present at each site and detail how the site is to be graded and filled.
- Appropriate permits must be obtained from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Luzerne Conservation District to ensure that all work meets required standards.
- Refuse and garbage dumped illegally by residents and contractors alike must be removed from the site and placed in an appropriate landfill prior to any work beginning.
Once each of the above pre-work items are completed, reclamation work can then begin. Work at each site differs depending on its condition, but generally, some or all of the following work will be performed at each site:
- Existing culm or other mining waste must be either removed from the site and properly disposed of or leveled and covered with a substantial amount of fill material.
- Use of heavy equipment is necessary in all reclamation projects for the removal and/or moving of material or leveling of the site.
- After material has been removed or graded and leveled, the entire reclaimed area must be seeded to stabilize the soil and prevent future erosion.
- For some projects, more intensive re-vegetation is necessary to create a riparian buffer for nearby streams. A riparian buffer is simply an area along a stream that is typically up to 100 feet wide and is planted with trees, shrubs and grasses to not only protect the stream from erosion but to provide habitat for animals.
New uses for old culm
Part of the reclamation process on some sites now includes re-mining old culm, or coal waste material. This process is relatively new and available because of technological advancements in the coal processing industry. At one time, the black mountains of culm seen around Northeast Pennsylvania were considered waste because no exiting plants could generate enough heat to burn the hard coal. However, new advancements in processing are now able to generate a heat high enough to burn the one-time waste coal, which now make some of the culm or waste material valuable. This can be an asset to any project because the sale of the culm to electrical co-generation plants creates additional revenue that can be put back into the reclamation project.
Earth Conservancy has partnered with a few regional co-generation facilities on some projects. The advantage to both Earth Conservancy and the co-gen partner is that the culm is removed from the site and generates some revenue for the project, while at the same time supplying the co-generation facility with material to create electricity for use in homes and businesses. This partnership has resulted in more than 2 million ton of material being removed each year from some of the sites, which has yielded approximately 850,000 ton per year that can be used to create electricity.
Pre-regulatory mining was an invasive process that damaged the land, watersheds, left unsafe conditions at some sites and produced numerous environmental negative impacts.
Unreclaimed sites are easily recognizable because of their impacted conditions:
- sparse or nonexistent vegetation
- dry and rocky soil
- large piles of culm dot the landscape
- mine shaft openings
- steep highwalls
- mine subsidence
- Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD) seeping into watershed
- potential for underground mine fires
Northeast Pennsylvania has a proud mining heritage, one that fueled the American Industrial Revolution. The historical significance of that achievement will never fade, but neither will these sites fade from our landscape unless we address the unsafe and harmful conditions left behind by the pre-regulated mining industry. People throughout this region and across the state have become accustomed to looking at these conditions, but these conditions should motivate us to address each of these conditions that pose either an environmental or health hazard or both. This is our back yard, and we should want it to be safe, environmentally healthy and economically viable. Achieving that is Earth Conservancy’s mission.
As Earth Conservancy works to reclaim the mine scarred lands, it addresses each of these issues in an effort to bring positive change to the region. As each site is reclaimed, many of the above issues are remediated to the degree possible. In the case of vegetation and rocky soils, the culm banks and Abandoned Mine Drainage, the reclamation process can most easily address these issues. There are some that are less easily solved.
Mind Subsidences occur when underground mine working and/or supports collapse, causing the ground to shift, resulting in holes opening up at the surface. These holes can be very large, swallowing cars, destroying houses and even buildings. A sink hole is a subsidence on a much smaller scale. They are generally localized and can be recognized by a sudden depression of the ground surface as it collapses into a mine void. Sink holes can cause property damage but, it is usually to a lesser degree than subsidence.
Some conditions, like underground mine fires, are virtually impossible to stop. Mine fires run along the underground mine seams and in some cases can reach the surface, emitting smoke and noxious fumes. Earth Conservancy’s Laurel Run mine fire has been burning since 1915 and could burn for another 100 or more years. Unfortunately, because mining followed the coal seams, areas were mined underneath areas where houses and towns were built. This was the case in the 1970s in Centrailia, Pennsylvania, a mining town where a fire started at a dumpsite and ignited an abandoned mine shaft. The fire continued to burn along the coal seam slowly spreading under the town. In 1983 the federal government was authorized to buy all the homes, which would be razed. The majority of residents relocated, but some remained for a time but eventually took the buyout. In January 2010, the remaining 63 residents were forced to leave their homes because the fire had come too close to the remaining houses. Soon all of the houses of Centrailia will be razed.
Paying for Reclamation
Earth Conservancy funds its reclamation work in a number of ways: grants and loans, land sales, timbering and the sale of culm to co-generation facilities. Grants are a significant way in which Earth Conservancy pays for the reclamation work, but administrative costs are not covered by most grants, so Earth Conservancy uses these other methods to make up for what grants and loans do not pay. As reclamation costs increase, it is imperative the Earth Conservancy find a variety of ways to fund its work.
Grant funding can come from a variety of sources: the federal or state government, county or local governments or private foundations. We have been very successful at obtaining funding through sources such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Brownfield and Land Revitalization Program. The program is designed to assist states and communities and non-profits in economic redevelopment by preventing, assessing, safely cleaning up, and sustainably reusing a brownfield site. A brownfield site is a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of an existing site, which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant. Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski was instrumental in having abandoned mine lands included in the Brownfields program.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been another important partner in funding reclamation work on Earth Conservancy’s land. We have received funding through the Growing Greener, started by Gov. Tom Ridge and expanded by Growing Greener II, started by Gov. Ed Rendell. Additional support has come through the Energy Harvest Program and the Illegal Dump Cleanup Program. The DEP is the state entity responsible for the state’s environmental laws and regulations and supporting environmental improvements in the community including air, water, energy technology development improvement programs.