The 103-mile long Lehigh River, a major water artery of Northeastern Pennsylvania, flows through 10 counties, and in doing so provides environmental and recreational opportunities which attract anglers, rafters, kayakers, bikers, environmentalists and historical tourists to the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution - a river in a constant battle to overcome the environment damage of that industrial past.
Carbon County gets its name from the anthracite coal that was mined in the Southern Coal Field from Jim Thorpe to Tamaqua and the Eastern Middle Coal Field centered on Hazleton. Within the Lehigh River watershed, deep mines - those below the water table - were drained by pumps and drainage tunnels to creeks that discharged into the Lehigh River.
For a century and a half the Lehigh River was not only dammed stagnant, dammed for navigation, it was the recipient of industrial, municipal and mine waste. Industrial companies and municipalities are no longer permitted to pollute the Lehigh River, but the story has not reached such a happy ending when it comes to mine drainage.
Abandoned Mine Drainage is what it's called, AMD for short. When most of the anthracite coal mines operated and even when they shut down, there were no environmental laws governing what to do with the discharge. And so, for decades upon decades, even after the dams have been removed, and all other forms of pollution have ceased, eight AMDs continue to dump acid and metal salts into the otherwise pristine Lehigh River.
These eight AMDs in order of priority: 1. Lausanne Tunnel, 2. Owl Hole Tunnel, 3. Quakake Tunnel, 4. Buck Mountain # 2 Tunnel, 5. Sandy Run Tunnel, 6. Hazle Brook Overflow, 7. Pond Creek Overflow, and 8. Buck Mountain #1 Tunnel.
Taking the lead on mitigating these AMD projects is the Wildlands Conservancy. Recently, Wildlands vice president of Conservation Science, Abigail Pattishall, visited the Buck Mountain # 2 Tunnel to assess the project.
The discharge from the Buck Mountain #2 Tunnel has an extremely acidic pH of 3.6 with concentrations of dissolved iron, aluminum, manganese and sulfate.
Asa Lansford Foster discovered a rich vein of anthracite at Buck Mountain and began operations there in 1837. The company employed from three to six-hundred men and shipped nearly 3.5 million tons of anthracite. The Buck Mountain coal was considered to be the cleanest coal available and served to fuel the Monitor in its historic battle with the Merrimac.
Operations ceased in 1883 because of difficulties discharging water. In 1895, to dewater the mine, the Buck Mountain #2 Tunnel was constructed. The tunnel drains to Buck Mountain Creek, a tributary of the Lehigh River. It is located between Weatherly and Eckley Miners Village.
In 2009, Wildlands Conservancy installed a system to treat the discharge from the Buck Mountain #2 Tunnel. "The project came out of a study that Wildlands started in 1998 to characterize the abandoned mine drainage impacts to the Lehigh River," Pattishall explained.
The project takes a portion of the tunnel discharge and routes it through a limestone-filled pond to neutralize the acid to a pH of 6 to 6.5 which will encourage precipitation of the metals. After a brief period of operation, the project has had a setback-a downstream home has been getting water in its basement. Wildlands has throttled the project until the flooding issue is resolved.
Pattishall is looking into a possibility of a leak in the underground piping and hopes to have an inspection done, hopefully through the loan of video inspection equipment. The project has already cost $400,000, she noted, and further state funding is unlikely.
The current project uses a passive system. This replaced an earlier unsuccessful system that mechanically-added powdered limestone.
"Abandoned mine drainage remains the biggest water quality problem in our region and it is a complicated issue," Pattishall said. "It is difficult to fix and requires a lot of money-and the technology is not perfect."