‘Mining our Manners’: It’s time for Pa. to clean up its abandoned mines

Pa. leads the nation in abandoned mine lands. It doesn’t have to be that way

An acid mine drainage treatment system on Nanticoke Creek in Luzerne County, PA. New federal funding will allow more streams tainted by acid mine drainage to be restored. (PA Department of Environmental Protection photo)

An acid mine drainage treatment system on Nanticoke Creek in Luzerne County, PA. New federal funding will allow more streams tainted by acid mine drainage to be restored. (PA Department of Environmental Protection photo)

By Chris Deluzio and Molly Parzen

Pennsylvania has long been the economic engine that has powered our nation’s prosperity. However, we still see some of the effects of bygone practices from a lack of environmental and health regulations in communities across our commonwealth today.

The commonwealth, sadly, leads the nation in abandoned mine lands (AML). These are the lands, waters, and surrounding watersheds where extraction or processing of ores and minerals has occurred.

Pennsylvania accounts for one-third of the country’s AML problem areas in 43 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Concerningly, AMLs can pose serious threats to human health and the environment. But thanks to federal investment in environmental restoration, we now have a historic opportunity to address this problem and create a brighter future for impacted communities.

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Although it currently has fewer than 50 active mines, the commonwealth still has roughly 5,000 abandoned underground mines, many of which are leaching toxic metals and other hazardous contaminants into our water and dangerous methane into our air—contributing to local environmental issues and the overall climate crisis.

Pennsylvanians are rightfully proud of our legacy of powering the country with coal. Today, we must address and remediate any lingering or ongoing damage, such as the fact that acid mine drainage through abandoned mines is the number one water pollution problem for our state.

Acid mine drainage occurs when water polluted from contact with mines and mining activity—typically coal mining—flows through abandoned mines, interacts with the rock and heavy metals inside, becomes acidic, and then combines with surrounding groundwater, surface water, and soil. This then contaminates surrounding groundwater or surface water supplies, ultimately harming— or even killing—local fish, wildlife, and people.

With more than 7,000 Pennsylvania streams impacted by acid mine drainage and more than 5,500 miles with impaired water quality due to runoff from abandoned mines, far too many miles of streams and creeks have been rendered biologically dead and are no longer able to support most aquatic life.

Billions of dollars in federal aid on the way to attack abandoned mine pollution in Pa., elsewhere

These kinds of impacts are more far-reaching than the Norfolk Southern derailment outside of Darlington Township, and we can all agree that that toxic spill was disastrous. This acid mine damage is unacceptable. It’s time that these mines are reclaimed and remediated to address our local environmental concerns and protect waterways that connect throughout the Commonwealth.

The process of abandoned mine reclamation involves cleaning up environmental pollutants and hazards from these mines to restore the land and water to a healthy, productive condition.

Unfortunately, even though we know where many of these abandoned mines are and the harm they are doing to the environment, there is a massive backlog for the cleanup services.

Luckily, President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) delivers the largest investment in tackling legacy pollution in American history and provides a total of nearly $11.3 billion in grant funding over 15 years, specifically turbocharging programs addressing abandoned mines.

Of that total, Pennsylvania will receive nearly $245 million—the most of any state.

As required by the IIJA, these investments, in addition to addressing water quality and protecting our environment, will create good-paying union jobs and improve local economies by prioritizing projects that employ dislocated coal industry workers.

Pennsylvania has the strongest and most skilled union workforce in the nation, and the IIJA represents not only a tremendous investment in addressing environmental hazards, but in supporting our local workers and economy.

We don’t have to choose between good, union jobs and a healthy environment. Pennsylvanians deserve to have both. Abandoned mine reclamation projects support jobs for coal communities by investing in projects that close abandoned shafts, reclaim unstable slopes, improve water quality, and restore water supplies damaged by mining.

They also support economic revitalization by restoring once hazardous land for recreational or other productive uses.

Our government is supposed to serve everyone, and that’s exactly what the funding from the Infrastructure Law is here to do.

Now that Pennsylvania is finally getting the boost it needs for restoration efforts, state and federal leaders must work together and act now to nail the implementation, while ensuring Western Pennsylvania coal communities maximize our share of this investment to seriously tackle this environmental hazard while creating good jobs.

U.S. Rep. Chris Deluzio, a Democrat, represents the western Pennsylvania-based 17th Congressional District. Molly Parzen is the executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.