Abandoned mines brewing pollution crisis across Pa.

Toxic mix of sulfuric acid and heavy metals foul state's streams

October 28, 2002|By Patrick Kerkstra | Patrick Kerkstra,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - Over the last two centuries, abandoned coal mines leaking a toxic mix of sulfuric acid and heavy metals have fouled more than 3,100 miles of Pennsylvania rivers and streams, making them the chief source of water pollution in the commonwealth.

Soon, the problem that state officials and environmentalists already describe as "terrible" could get worse, and present Pennsylvania with a grim choice: allow a new tsunami of poisons to contaminate dozens more waterways - or pay tens of millions of dollars a year, every year forever, to control it.

`Deplorable condition'

"Our streams are in deplorable condition, and they are hardly done paying for the games of the coal companies," state Rep. Camille George, a Clearfield Democrat and minority chairman of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, warned.

At their lethal worst, mine discharges have tinged currents a sickly orange, ruined drinking supplies, wiped out fish, plants and habitats, and rendered entire waterways lifeless.

In response to those past abuses by the coal industry, federal and state laws now require operators to purify the polluted drainage from their old mines if they want to work new sites. The trouble is, coal is no longer king in Pennsylvania, and an exodus of as many as 140 struggling mine operators is in the offing.

When they pull out, there is little to stop them from abandoning their environmental obligations at 262 mines and coal waste piles dotting the state from the bituminous regions in the west to the anthracite fields in the east. Together those sites generate at least 28 billion gallons of acid drainage annually.

On Sept. 30, one of the largest of the sinking concerns, LTV Steel, will stop pumping and cleaning the water at three closed mines and two waste piles near Pittsburgh - a move approved by a federal bankruptcy judge over the objection of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

$2 million fund

LTV will forfeit a $190,000 bond to the state, enough to pay for a few weeks of water purification. To keep the process going, the Department of Environmental Protection has created a $2 million fund, but within a year, that, too, will be tapped dry.

Were the treatments to end then, hundreds of millions of polluted gallons would burst from the largest LTV mine and sweep into the Youghiogheny River, a premier recreational waterway, with catastrophic effect. Similar scenarios would unfold at the other LTV mines.

Facing that prospect, the Department of Environmental Protection is looking for another $20 million to set up a trust fund large enough to guarantee long-term treatment. The agency has asked the bankruptcy court to order LTV to chip in at least a portion. Public money would make up the rest.

Citing the continuing bankruptcy proceedings, an LTV spokesman declined requests for comment.

Beyond the LTV crisis are 257 other crises-in-the-making - sites currently being treated by companies that, state and federal authorities say, are likely to quit the coal business in Pennsylvania. Among those on shaky ground are the bankrupt Bethlehem Steel Corp. and K&J Coal.

"We're dealing with individuals and companies here. Individuals die. Companies cease to exist," said J. Scott Roberts, chief of the Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Mineral Resources Management. "We will at some point lose treatment at all of them."

To assume that responsibility would cost the state plenty. Estimates have run from $10 million to $53 million a year.

`Problem is immense'

"The problem is immense, the cost to clean it up is immense, and unless we do something now, it's about to get a whole lot worse," said Wyona Coleman, chairwoman of the state Sierra Club's mining committee.

Doing "something" means fixing a badly flawed accountability system that has allowed mine owners to dig coal without giving the state more than a pittance as a deposit against environmental damage. Since the early 1980s, the Department of Environmental Protection has required modest bonds for land reclamation - but not a dime specifically for long-term, and far more costly, water treatments.

In the last 20 years, owners of 54 mines with drainage problems have opted to forfeit the bonds, close their collieries, and walk away. Size-wise, most of those enterprises - and the 9,000 pounds of acid that wash from the sites daily - pale compared with the corporate behemoths expected to follow them into the ether in coming years.

"There's no question the coal industry should pay for this," said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Hess. "Public funding should be a last resort."

Persuading ailing coal companies to pony up big money, however, has not been easy. They argue that because Pennsylvania has been so thoroughly mined, they often find old drainage problems at their sites.

`We didn't cause it'

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