Within the lifetimes of many of our senior citizens, industry giants like the New Jersey Zinc Company and the coal mines of the Panther Valley area were what made the local economies boom.

However, the prosperity didn't come without a cost to the local environment.

It's a credit to environmental science technology that restoration projects like the one recently completed to reseed the Blue Mountain near Palmerton can repair the damage done to our environment by emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in cooperation with the National Park Service, oversaw the aerial project which planted grass and other vegetation on a portion of the Palmerton Zinc Superfund site along the Appalachian Trail.

There is also cause for optimism for lands affected by the coal industry. Last week, it was announced that EPA is also helping convert old coal-mining land in western Maryland into greenhouses to grow food for Frostburg State University students.

The five-acre greenhouse project is a joint effort by the school, the state and the Western Maryland Resource Conservation and Development Council. It's also noteworthy that the development council is looking to build the complex using fly ash, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants.

The $300,000 grant will be money well spent. The trees grown and planted on the barren mountaintop site will prevent sediment from washing into nearby stream. The plantings near the headwaters of the Potomac River are also expected to improve water quality downstream and in the Chesapeake Bay.

Not only will it keep stream banks from eroding but the council says one acre of greenhouses on the reclaimed surface mine would be able to supply 20 percent of the produce used in the Frostburg State University dining hall.

Officials say the greenhouses should be in operation this year on acreage leased from the Allegany Coal and Land Co. The reclaimed land was previously used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to store mobile homes intended to shelter disaster victims.

The Maryland greenhouse plan is one of six projects receiving grants totaling nearly $1.4 million through the Highlands Action Program. The region includes Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. One of the grants awarded was for $250,000 to the Land Conservancy of Adams County, Pa., to preserve 147 acres including the headwaters of Marsh Creek.

With government agencies under closer public scrutiny these days over the misuse of taxpayer dollars, the Maryland greenhouse project certainly ranks as an exception. Here, citizens will be able to see a return on their taxpayer dollars in the way of a healthier environment.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com