Although a municipal water line has been extended south from Frostburg -- solving water problems for numerous families -- some families in George's Creek still have no potable water. Some, such as Davis and Ross, receive water delivered weekly by the local fire department while they wait to be connected to the Frostburg line.
For more than a dozen years, they have bought their drinking water from the supermarket. Davis has lived with 2 inches of standing red water in her basement for the past three years. And Ross -- once proud of the frame house and garden where he has lived for 40 years -- stopped making even minor repairs, fearing that his property, without good water, is worthless.
"I've gone to bed at night and couldn't sleep," says Ross. "I couldn't believe a thing like this would happen and nothing would be done about it."
Virgil and Diane Hamilton have struggled with water problems off and on for more than 10 years. Every other day, Diane Hamilton makes a 30-mile round trip to fill two dozen jugs of drinking water for her family of seven. The family has continued to bathe and wash clothes with water from their well, which, according to health department reports, has been contaminated with coliform bacteria, off-and-on for at least six years.
The Bureau of Mines replaced an old hand-dug well for the Hamiltons and some time later, that well became contaminated. Allegany County health department authorities determined last fall that the Hamiltons' septic system is failing and found recently that the well casing is cracked. Authorities made some repairs to the Hamiltons' well and have suggested others.
Although the Bureau of Mines says it has found no evidence to link the Hamiltons' water problems to the abandoned mine, the Hamiltons blame heavy runoff from the mine on the hill behind their house for serious soil erosion that they believe has contributed to the failure of their systems.
Families who have lost their wells remember in vivid detail the moment the water went bad.
Ross' wife, Mary, was washing dishes. Everything was fine and then "15 minutes later the water started running red."
Bob Beeman's well first went bad in 1985. His well was replaced twice by the Bureau of Mines before city water lines finally provided a reliable supply.
"Our wells started going bad, one right after another, right down the line," Beeman said.
In almost every case of contamination -- whether acid mine drainage or a damaged well -- there is a different and now defunct mining company to blame. However, if these companies contaminated the water before laws regulating mines were enacted -- and most of them did -- they cannot now be held responsible for the cleanup.
Mine companies that damaged wells after state regulations were passed, beginning in the mid-1960s, are required to replace the wells. Funds set aside by the Bureau of Mines also are used to replace wells where possible or to pay for alternate water systems.
Federal laws passed in 1977 also established stricter controls on active mining and set up funds to be used to pay for land and water reclamation.
"What they did at the time was legal," says Carey. "We couldn't go back on them now -- even if they were still in business, which most of them aren't."
Since 1977, miners have been assessed up to 35 cents a ton for the federal Abandoned Mines Land fund, whose funds are to be used to reclaim land and clean up water.
It is a sore point among miners -- and frustration for state officials -- that for the past several years Congress has not fully appropriated the funds. Instead, Congress has allowed a reserve of more than $1.1 billion to accumulate -- largely to offset the federal deficit, federal mining officials acknowledge. The distribution formula also is weighted toward land reclamation projects, leaving a relatively small amount for water projects.
Maryland currently receives $1.5 million from the AML fund, although the state, Carey says, is entitled to $2 million. The additional $500,000, Carey says, would pay for seven or eight water restoration projects a year.
"We are in times of trying to reduce the overall federal deficit and live within certain targets of the overall appropriations," says Gene Krueger of the Office of Surface Mining. "Eventually that money will be spent for the purpose for which it was collected."
Meanwhile, the grass-roots work continues.
"We're cleaning up the legacy of the past," says DeShong. "You can't point fingers at people forever. The problem's been here too long to do that."
Pub Date: 6/02/97