From the moment Tim Kania first set eyes on Blacklick Creek, he could tell something was very wrong.
The forest surrounding the watershed, which runs through Cambria and Indiana counties, about an hour’s drive east from Pittsburgh, appears at first to be a pristine swath of rural Pennsylvania. A car passes over a nearby bridge, the engine piercing an otherwise tranquil evening. The stillness returns as it disappears around a bend.
That stillness indicates the issue. No trout splash the surface of the creek in search of supper. No flies hum at the water’s edge or buzz in the ears. Hands remain inert at the lack of swatting.
As the descending sunlight hits the water, it glows an unnatural orange. The color isn’t the result of the golden hour, but of decades of pollution caused by abandoned coal mines that have choked the creek of life.
An avid outdoorsman, Kania moved to the area in 1982 to accept a job with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] as a coal mine regulator. The state of the creek depressed him.
“I remember looking at it and thinking it’s a shame,” Kania said. “There wasn’t a thing living in it.”
Some of the mines polluting the streams date back to the early 20th century. He described a sense of hopelessness among residents who had never seen the river support life.
The people he talked to said nothing could be done, Kania said. “I think that was the general feeling,” he explained. “It seemed like an overwhelming task.”
Daunting though the task may be, Kania and a stalwart group of locals have spent almost three decades raising awareness about the damage to their communities and vying for the support of state officials. But in an ironic twist, the shift away from coal has created uncertainties about the future of reclamation work.
Scars of King Coal
Pennsylvania, historically the throne of King Coal, contains the most abandoned mine sites in the country. For the first 200 years of mining, coal companies ran largely unregulated. They would extract what they needed and leave the debris of their operations like litter at a campground.
Heaping piles of mine waste, some weighing millions of tons, now leak heavy metals that acidify soil and water, decimating ecosystems. Drainage from abandoned mines marks the biggest source of water pollution in Pennsylvania, according to the DEP, with more than 5,500 miles of streams affected. Abandoned mines and waste piles also release methane — a greenhouse gas at least 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide — into the atmosphere.
To date, 5,000 abandoned underground mines have been across in the state, according to the DEP. That number doesn’t take into account the refuse piles and other mine-related problems that grow almost daily.
Mine practices improved in 1977 with the passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The regulations require mine operators to, among other things, restore land after mining is complete, a process known as reclamation. But the new rules did not apply to mines that had already been abandoned. That left 250,000 contaminated acres in Pennsylvania, according to data from the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
As the nation moves away from coal toward greener energy, it must also look back to heal the old wounds.
The Blacklick Valley is a prime example. It was once a booming region. Its town of Nanty-Glo, named after a Welsh term meaning “streams of coal,” used to boast the largest concentration of coal mines in the state. Since the 1980s, communities have grappled with the decline of mining in the valley and the resulting blows to local economies. Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Co., once a Fortune 500 company based in Indiana County, was acquired by Consol Energy in 1998, which shuttered mines throughout the valley in the ensuing years.
The effects of pollution have only made matters worse. Residents have seen their basements flooded and foundations destroyed as a result of abandoned mine drainage. The proximity to unsightly and hazardous debris has depressed property values.
The water in these areas contains high levels of heavy metals, namely iron, aluminum and manganese. The orange sediment in the creek is the result of oxidized iron. The Blacklick Valley houses bituminous coal, which has a relatively high sulfur content and leads to acidic mine drainage. Streams can have a pH as low as 2, according to the DEP, which makes it 100,000 times more acidic than neutral water. Water high in heavy metals and acidity kills off macroinvertebrates like the larvae of caddisflies and midges, which fish rely on for food.
Once acid generation begins, it’s difficult to stop. Mines dating back to ancient Rome continue to release acidic drainage, some 2,000 years later.
Fish can actually survive some water pollution, Kania said, “but if there’s nothing for them to eat, then obviously they’re not going to sustain themselves.”
Kania, who retired in 2014, has been a longtime proponent of stream reclamation. He’s a member of the Blacklick Watershed Association, which is working with the DEP to bring life back to its eponymous creek.
At the start of this year, the state highlighted Blacklick Creek as a top priority for reclamation. Gov. Tom Wolf announced $25 million of U.S. Treasury funding for its abandoned mine reclamation program, on top of the money awarded to the state under the reclamation act.
“These newly approved projects will bring economic opportunity and activity to Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in a press release about the funding. “These sites will become hiking trails, farm fields, and solar farms — a new future for sites still marred from past use.”
Some of that money is going toward a $26.1 million water treatment facility along Blacklick Creek. It will be built about a mile from Vintondale, a town with a long and turbulent coal history. The site lies on 28 acres of previously reclaimed abandoned mine land. Construction broke ground in mid-June, with completion scheduled for 2025.
Once operational, the facility will purify 7.2 million gallons of water each day from three major sources of nearby acid mine drainage, including from three bore holes outside Vintondale, according to the DEP. Chemicals will be added to raise the pH and remove toxic metals. If all goes according to plan, the project could restore 25 miles of the creek and establish a fishery.
“If this plant works the way everyone believes it’s going to,” Kania said, “the entire main stem of Blacklick should support aquatic life.”
Bringing life back to the valley
As much as Blacklick Valley exemplifies the ills of mine pollution, it also illustrates the promise of reclamation.
The South Branch Blacklick Creek, which joins with the North Branch just outside Vintondale to form the main stem, has for several decades been the site of environmental work. Mounds of toxic coal waste, known as refuse piles, have been removed, improving the pH of the surrounding soil and water. As a result, macroinvertebrates have returned.
The progress led to the creation of a fishing group known as the South Branch Trout Club. One of its founding members, Tom Mesoras, was born and raised in the town of Twin Rocks, a seven-minute drive from Vintondale. The South Branch flowed through part of his father’s 8 acres of property. For most of his life, the creek glowed that strange orange.
Mesoras remembers swimming in the Blacklick as a kid in the 1960s. He and his friends nicknamed it “Sulfur Crick.” They had a favorite swimming hole, much to the chagrin of their parents.
“We’d come home and my mom would say, ‘Were you swimming in that sulfur water again?’” Mesoras said. “We’d say, ‘No.’”
“Well,” she’d say, “then how come your underwear are orange?”
(left) A mine waste refuse pile at a Department of Environmental Protection reclamation site in Vintondale. (right) Tim Kania and Tom Mesoras sit together for a portrait near Blacklick Creek. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)
With the removal of the coal waste piles and the rerouting of some mine drainage, the water has turned from orange to healthy-looking and clear. The South Branch Trout Club raised money to restock the creek with a variety of trout.
In 2015, Mesoras heard, for the first time in his life, the splash of fish in the creek.
On a warm July evening this year, Mesoras drove to one of his favorite fishing spots along South Branch, about a mile east of Vintondale. He eyed the water from a bridge. The current trickled over mossy rocks, which Mesoras said are important for providing oxygen. Maple trees provided a canopy of shade to keep the water cool. Ripples as if from raindrops sprinkled the surface of the creek, signs of hungry fish.
“This section,” Mesoras said, “from here up to the next town of Twin Rocks, is some of the best water you’ll find anywhere.”
So far this year, the trout club has put about 1,000 fish in the South Branch, he added, using money from selling T-shirts and pins. A lot of the funding comes from people who grew up in the area and return astonished at the improvements to the water.
“We’ll get $100 donations, and they don’t even want a pin,” Mesoras said. “They’re just thrilled to see [the creek] come back the way it has.”
Just a mile downstream, where the South Branch connects with the North Branch, those three bore holes spew acid mine drainage from underground tunnels. The water goes from blue-green to orange, and the fish are nowhere to be seen.
Big problems, big bills
Reclamation doesn’t come cheap. Reclaiming all of the sites in Pennsylvania that threaten human health and safety is projected to cost $5 billion, according to the DEP.
To aid with cleanup efforts, the 1977 reclamation act established the Abandoned Mine Land Trust Fund, derived from a fee on each ton of newly extracted coal. Yet the annual funding pales in comparison to the scope of the problem, and income to the fund is drying up. In 2022, Pennsylvania received $26.4 million through the fund, compared to $53 million in 2019.
The logic behind the loss of funding is simple, according to Patrick Webb, assistant director of the DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation: According to the federal funding formula, the more coal that’s mined, the more money Pennsylvania receives for reclamation. The amount varies from year to year depending on a variety of factors, but the trend, Webb said, is for coal production to decline amid the push for more renewable energy and competition with natural gas. The government has also decreased the per-ton fee on active mines. That all means less money for reclamation.
New funding streams are set to flow in the coming years. The Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, passed in 2021, awarded an additional $3.67 billion to Pennsylvania to accelerate reclamation. It marks the “biggest sustained investment in clean-up and reclamation of abandoned mine lands ever,” according to the DEP.
The money will be dispersed over the next 15 years, Webb said, to the tune of nearly $245 million each year. In September, the state can start applying for money. Previous reclamation projects have not only improved the environment but provided opportunities for farming and renewable energy production.
While the infrastructure bill provides a welcome boost, it doesn’t take into account some major costs of reclamation work. Projects like the water treatment facility on the Blacklick don’t stop when construction is complete. The plants have to be maintained, constantly diverting and cleaning contaminated water.
“It’s a 24/7, everyday thing until forever,” Webb said.
It costs more than $350,000 annually to run a similar treatment facility, located in Montgomery County, yet funding from the infrastructure bill doesn’t cover long-term operations and maintenance of these operations. The DEP estimates that building and operating all of the water treatment plants needed to clean Pennsylvania’s waterways — not to mention other reclamation projects — will require billions of dollars.
“Almost every other day we’re finding new abandoned mine land problems that we’re adding to our inventory that were not known whenever this funding value of the [infrastructure] bill was calculated,” Webb said.
As more and more coal companies across the country file for bankruptcy, concerns arise over how, and if, mine sites can be restored to their natural states in the years to come.
A greener foot forward
Mesoras remembers the prosperity coal brought to the Blacklick Valley. He worked in underground mines for 26 years but was laid off as the mines closed. Eventually he went to work for a construction company that built a water treatment facility similar to the one planned for Blacklick Creek.
While the valley’s coal boom has busted, reclamation has opened opportunities for new growth.
The railroad track Mesoras and his friends used to walk along has since been converted to a public path known as the Ghost Town Trail, so named because it passes through several deserted mining towns. In 2020, it won the “Trail of the Year” award from the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. That year, about 80,000 people used the trail. Trail improvements are part of the $26.1 million water treatment project, which locals hope will revitalize the valley.
Indiana County Commissioner Sherene Hess frequents the Ghost Town Trail on her bike. A longtime environmentalist, she focused the bulk of her career on improving water quality. The county has partnered with the DEP on the water treatment project.
Hess sees this as a way to bring people and money to areas previously hindered by abandoned mines. The state Fish and Boat Commission estimates that communities lose an annual $29 million in angler-generated revenue alone from this type of pollution.
“For these rural areas, outdoor recreation is really important,” Hess said. “It’s not going to be the end all be all, but it’s certainly a big part of bolstering our local economy.”
It brings Mesoras joy to see the community able to fish, hike and cycle on his childhood stomping grounds. He described a fishing derby the South Branch Trout Club hosted in January. Despite a snowstorm, the riverside was lined with kids casting their lines.
“That’s what it’s all about for me,” he said.
Derek Maiolo is the Margaret L. Whitford Fellow at Chatham University, where he is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative nonfiction. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Emily Sauchelli.
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