BAKERTON – Gov. Edward G. Rendell is promoting economic growth in former mining communities and improving recreational opportunities throughout the Pennsylvania Wilds region by targeting resources to finance the cleanup of one of the most significant pollution problems in the West Branch Susquehanna River Watershed.
The 18-acre Barnes-Watkins waste coal pile sits in the headwaters of the West Branch in West Carol Township, Cambria County, where an estimated 1.3 million tons of high-sulfur coal has been a decades-long source of acid mine drainage, killing aquatic life in the river. Large areas of the pile have been burning for many years.
“More than 1,000 miles of the West Branch and its tributaries are void of life because of acid mine drainage and runoff from abandoned waste coal piles,” Rendell said. “Modern regulations forbid mining companies from leaving the land in this condition. Still, many of our communities are left with a legacy that endangers residents, deflates property values and poisons rivers and streams. We are working aggressively to turn these environmental challenges into opportunities.”
The state is using scarce state and federal abandoned mine funds, coupled with grants from Rendell’s Growing Greener II initiative, to gradually restore the health of the West Branch. The Barnes-Watkins cleanup is one of several major projects under way in the watershed.
Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen A. McGinty Tuesday inspected ongoing work during a tour of the $4.4 million project. The funding comes from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Trust Fund, which is subsidized by a fee on every ton of coal mined by the active coal industry.
Several area underground mines dumped their waste along the banks of the West Branch prior to 1930, creating the Barnes-Watkins pile. The pile grew until it eventually displaced the river, forcing it out of its natural channel. Much of the coal waste came from the Lower Kittanning coal seam, which is very high in sulfur. Rain percolating through the waste coal pile leaches acidic runoff into the river, making it impossible for aquatic life to survive.
“Pennsylvania is blessed with great mineral riches and a vast river system that encouraged large-scale industrial practices and widespread mining,” McGinty said. “These assets helped us build and power the nation. But now our challenge is restoring the land and embracing its assets to help fuel Pennsylvania’s future economic growth.”
Rendell awarded a $1.2 million contract in September 2003 to the Cambria County Conservation and Recreation Authority for the first phase of the site reclamation. Work on that portion finished in May 2005. The authority received a $3.2 million contract in November 2004 for the second and final phase. In both phases, the authority hired Robindale Energy Services Inc. of Indiana County to excavate and dispose of the pile.
The useable coal waste is being hauled to Reliant Energy’s 521-megawatt waste-coal-to-energy power plant in nearby Seward, Westmoreland County. The state-of-the art plant uses 11,000 tons of waste coal daily to generate electricity. The remaining material is being taken to a coal refuse disposal facility.
Approximately two-thirds of the Barnes-Watkins pile — about 625,000 cubic yards of refuse —has been removed from the pile. Three-quarters of that material has been recovered and used as fuel.
In 2003, Rendell launched the West Branch Susquehanna River Watershed Initiative to protect a portion of Pennsylvania that is renowned for its spectacular scenery and wildlife. This includes the Pennsylvania Wilds, a region that boasts more the 2 million acres of public lands and some of the most remote and scenic areas east of the Mississippi River.
Pennsylvania has the largest abandoned mine lands problem in the country, with more than 180,000 acres of unmarked shafts, unstable cliffs, water-filled pits and abandoned equipment and buildings left over from the time when mining was largely unregulated prior to 1977.