Balancing the environmental and financial impacts of coal

(Keith Srakocic | AP file photo) The Bruce Mansfield power plant in Shippingport, Pa., is seen from across the Ohio River from Industry, Pa. on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

Somerset, Pa. • Len Lichvar doesn’t like to see the Stonycreek River running red.

That’s an indicator that iron, or another metal, is leaching into the waterway.

He has been working and volunteering to clean area rivers and streams for about three decades with the state Fish & Boat Commission and with the Somerset Conservation District.

“It should bother anyone who likes clean water,” Lichvar, the district’s regional manager, said about contamination.

Recently he has noticed red water in Fallen Timber Run in Hooversville, likely from an old mine that has found a new way to reach the surface.

Fallen Timber is a tributary to the Stonycreek, a river that was in poor condition until restoration efforts started in the 1990s, Lichvar said. The district focuses on abandoned mine sites, places where mining happened decades ago with little regulation.

It’s part of what he calls a constant battle to control past drainage sites while mitigating the damage of new ones that emerge.

The state Department of Environmental Protection recently released a report that summarizes underground coal mining’s impact on the environment and on surface structures as a result of subsidence during a five-year period at active mines. The most recent report studied 2013-18.

The findings show good news — a reduction in incidents where water supplies were impacted by mining, in cases where the company was liable. There were 192 such incidents in the latest study, down from 371 from 2008-13.

The DEP said that strict oversight dramatically reduced response times, limiting the impact. The time to resolve incidents dropped from 415 days to 302 days.

Five-year studies are required by Act 54 of 1994. The report doesn’t include every case of abandoned contamination sites that emerge. The study tracked 49 active mines.

If caught now and dealt with, the sites targeted in the study may not turn into bigger problems for Lichvar and other conservationists in the future.

When asked by email if she thought the act has helped to curb the impact of contamination sites, DEP press secretary Elizabeth Rementer had a clear response.


Expert guidance

Daniel J. Bain is an associate professor with the University of Pittsburgh’s geology and environmental science department. He has been a part of the last two five-year studies. The DEP uses a team of experts to conduct the reports. The last five-year study cost $795,305 to complete.

“I think it’s really important to understand the impacts that longwall mining has on the surface,” he said. “It’s extremely stressful to people to be undermined.”

Longwall mines, which Bain said are typically cheaper and result in more coal, harvest entire panels of mineral from the ground. The result is less support for the rock above.

“That creates subsidence across that whole area,” Bain said.

Subsidence results when an underground mine collapses, displacing the ground above it. Land shifts and sinkholes form. Cracked foundations and even homes and structures sinking into the ground are problems that arise, along with water contamination.

This type of mining is more common in the southwestern part of the state. In Somerset County, room-and-pillar mining is more common.

Bain said it’s safer because pillars of coal are left in the ground.

“They mine out rooms, leaving pillars to support the rock,” he said.

Geological conditions often dictate which method is used.

“The state has investigated 15 reports of mine subsidence in Somerset County in the last five years,” Rementer said in an email. “Portions of Somerset County have been undermined but generally it is not at a higher or lower risk than other counties where abandoned underground mines exist.”

The state offers subsidence insurance for the public. It can also be bought in the private market. Damage can exceed $100,000, the DEP reports. Local insurance providers said the coverage is seldom requested.

“There is no demand for it,” Jack Mosholder, general partner of Mosholder Insurance in Somerset, said.

Alicia Wilkins, at Sechler Insurance in Somerset, said the coverage might be requested once a year.

“But we probably go years without someone asking for it,” she said.

Coal’s economic impact

Mining continues to be important to the local economy. The most recent state labor statistics report that 870 people are employed in Somerset County in the mining, quarrying, oil and gas extraction fields.

Statewide, nearly 20,000 people work as miners, with tens of thousands more in support jobs, according to the National Mining Association.

Rachel Gleason is the executive director for the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, a nonprofit trade association based in Harrisburg. She said that Act 54 is helping to curb mining’s negative environmental impacts.

“Every new report the data has improved,” she said, adding that the industry works closely with the DEP to compile statistics for the studies.

The alliance represents more than 200 companies involved with the industry, including numerous ones in Somerset County. There were 10 mines operated by six companies in the county at the end of the last study.

Statewide, 28,854 acres were mined during the last five-year study, according to the DEP report.

“The intent of the act is to report and repair problems,” Rementer said.

Messages left at two Somerset County mining companies for comment were not returned.

A river runs through it

Overall, water quality is better than it was decades ago, Lichvar said.

“Improvements have been made,” he said.

That’s what makes the struggle all the more intense. There’s a fear of losing ground after so much progress.

“We are always on the brink of going the other way,” he said. “We are at a tipping point where historic progress could be lost.”

He said the couple new spots of concern on the Stonycreek tributaries are not “killing” the river. But if left unchecked, they could become a big problem.

Lichvar isn’t blaming the DEP for not having faster solutions for water problems that pop up. But he said he is short on volunteers and funding to maintain the infrastructure necessary to treat old drainage sites. So tackling new ones is difficult.

In many cases, there is no permanent fix. Constant treatment is needed.

“It’s somewhat disappointing,” he said about finding new areas of need. “To find out that new discharges erupt here, there and elsewhere.”

Regulations tightened in the latter part of the 20th century, including Act 54’s implementation in 1994. Gleason said that mining started to be regulated in the 1970s.

“Pennsylvania has a large inventory of abandoned mine lands,” she said.

At Fallen Timber, Lichvar said, there’s a 95-gallon-per-minute flow of contaminated water.

“It is not acidic, which is good, but the iron is also being deposited downstream into the Stonycreek River, which is not good for aquatic life. This discharge appeared in 2019. Pa. DEP is investigating but at last report has not confirmed a source,” Lichvar said.

Other areas of concern are iron-laden outflow entering Wells Creek near Listie. Oven Run has five treatment systems, which ultimately help to keep the Stonycreek clean. They were built in the 1990s, and Lichvar said they are nearing the end of their usefulness. A state grant is helping to fund work to fix portions of the system.

“The Big Picture — These are just several of 23 AMD passive treatment systems in Somerset County that require perpetual and regular maintenance and often eventual reconstruction in order for them to continue to function,” Lichvar said in an email describing the sites.

Cooperation and coexistence

The key to keeping the environment clean while mining coal is cooperation between the industry, the state and conservation groups, the experts said.

In Somerset County, the industry has had a rebound in recent years. Gleason said, however, that there has been a slight dip in the market lately. Metallurgical coal used for steel-making is the common type mined in the county. Global markets contribute to the local industry’s success and failure.

“It will all be market dependent,” Gleason said when asked if she thinks the industry will be strong in coming years.

One thing is certain: Mines started today can have an impact on people a century from now.

“This report (Act 54) is a good reminder of the effects of mining, and the need to mitigate those effects to ensure that underground mining can coexist with neighbors on the surface,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said in a written statement.

Bain is optimistic about the cooperation he has experienced as part of the studies. He said representatives from coal companies have been “great.”

“We found some things that weren’t perfect,” he said. “They are all good people and all want to make sure things are taken care of.”