Orange water spilling across state Route 88 in East Bethlehem Township prompted a state representative to question the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s response to a faulty acid mine treatment facility near Ten Mile Creek.
Rep. Pam Snyder, D-50th District, sent a letter to DEP Secretary Christopher Abruzzo April 12 requesting information on the acid mine water draining from the nearby abandoned Clyde Mine.
“I was driving down the highway, and I saw that the road was red,” Snyder said. “It made me take pause. I said, ‘What’s going on here?’”
Snyder said a brief phone conversation with a DEP official revealed that a treatment facility at the abandoned mine had been shut down, causing acid mine drainage to spill across the roadway and into local waterways.
“I wanted a resolution to (the problem) because their recent monitoring had showed the flow had doubled,” Snyder said. “I have not gotten a response back to my letter yet. I just want to make sure everything that could possibly be done to resolve this issue is being done.”
DEP community relations coordinator John Poister confirmed the leak. “We are certainly aware of the problem, and we are working on a plan right now designed to solve the problem on Ten Mile Creek,” Poister said.
The DEP took over control of the mine water treatment plant in 2000 when the former owner went bankrupt. Poister said a clogged borehole had collapsed last year and stopped the acid mine drainage treatment facility from operating.
Poister did not know exactly how much polluted water was being leaked but said DEP monitoring showed the volume recently had increased. He said it should not be harmful to wildlife, residents or recreational users of the waterway in the short term.
Poister said the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation was scheduled to begin the field work phase of the project within the next three or four weeks.
Paul Battaglini, commissioner at large for East Bethlehem Township, said he first noticed the problem earlier this spring as winter snows began to melt. He said acid mine drainage has long been a problem in this part of Western Pennsylvania, but recent cleanup efforts have gone a long way to restoring local waterways.
“I remember when I was a young person in the early ’60s, the Ten Mile was all orange,” Battaglini said. “There were dead fish everywhere.”
Abandoned coal mines often fill with water that becomes contaminated and turns orange from its interaction with high levels of iron. The water then seeps into local waterways, where the acidity has the potential to wreak havoc on PH levels. Fish and other aquatic wildlife sensitive to PH levels often die as a result.
In addition to the toll on wildlife, Battaglini said he worried about the effect the acid mine seepage could have on recreational activities in the area. The contaminated water in Ten Mile Creek flows downstream directly into the Monongahela River.
“We only have another month before Memorial Day,” Battaglini said. “Green Cove, Sunset Marina, all the docks along Ten Mile – that’s a gorgeous piece of water. This could disrupt everything for skiers to kayakers to boaters, everyone.”
Battaglini said the timing for the ecological contamination was unfortunate.
“Just when we get the river cleaned up and it’s the River of the Year in Pennsylvania, this happens a mile away in Ten Mile,” Battaglini said. The Monongahela River recently beat out the Susquehanna River to be named as Pennsylvania’s River of the Year by the state Department of Conservation.
Rebecca Trigger, president of the Harry Enstrom chapter of the Izaak Walton League, a nonprofit that aims to conserve and protect natural resources, said the contamination could possibly jeopardize the hard work organizers have done in recent years to bring people to the water. “We’re deeply concerned about the adverse effects to the environment and the people who are drinking this water,” Trigger said.
The Izaak Walton League stocks Ten Mile Creek with trout and monitors the water in the area. Trigger said although the tainted mine water did not contain dangerous PH levels, higher-than-normal levels of the chemical bromide were found at some test sites near the area. When mixed with chemicals such as chlorine at water treatment facilities, bromide can form the carcinogen trihalomethane. The Monongahela River is a source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents in the Mon Valley area.
Poister acknowledged the bromide, but said DEP testing showed the chemical wasn’t showing up in significant levels. He said if the levels did rise to dangerous concentrations, facilities could alter their treatment regimens to avoid creating the carcinogens.
Bromide isn’t usually associated with acid mine drainage from coal mines. Poister said the DEP wasn’t sure of the source of the chemical compound, but Trigger suspected it originated from nearby natural gas activity.
“The bromide indicates that the residual wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing process is getting into the mine shafts,” Trigger said.
While in the short term, small doses of mine discharge should not have an adverse effect on the wildlife in Ten Mile Creek and the Monongahela River, Trigger said the sudden appearance of the orange water was disturbing.
“It’s very unpleasant to look at,” Trigger said. “Aesthetically, it looks terrible, and we will continue to monitor it for adverse health effects to people and the environment.”