DEP Secretary McDonnell Tours Local Abandoned Mine Reclamation Site
IRWIN TWP., Pa. (EYT) – Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Patrick McDonnell and staff on Friday joined local officials and representatives from Scrubgrass Generating and South Sandy Creek Watershed Association to tour an abandoned mine reclamation site in Irwin Township.
(Pictured, left to right: DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell, Rep. R. Lee James, Valerie Tarkowski, and Jon Smoyer.)
The group consulted on how the bipartisan Restore Pennsylvania proposal could help communities fund mine reclamation projects.
The site is the former location of a coal cleaning plant that was in operation in the 1950s and 1960s in which an abundance of refuse was left behind, primarily in the sites last pit mine, as well as in the forest.
“We’re even finding trees and everything down on the original ground that were buried in coal refuse,” said Jon Smoyer, a Geologist with the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
“Because they were putting the coal refuse in holes in the ground, as well, and this area’s been glaciated, at least two thirds (of the refuse) is below the groundwater table, so the challenge is dewatering it, and then, for the guys at the plant, getting it dry enough to actually burn it.”
The project to clean up the site was initiated by the South Sandy Creek Watershed Association, a non-profit group that has been operating in the area for the last fifteen years.
In 2017, South Sandy Creek Watershed Association was awarded $3.1 million from the federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) pilot program, which is administered by DEP, for an abandoned mine reclamation project in the headwaters of a badly polluted tributary to South Sandy Creek in Irwin Township, Venango County.
The project involves the reclamation of a 52-acre former coal strip mine operation, coal screening, and a coal refuse disposal site, which has contributed significant acid mine drainage pollution to the South Sandy Creek Watershed. A pass-through grant is provided to the South Sandy Creek Watershed Association, Inc. in partnership with Scrubgrass Generating Plant, an 85-megawatt generating facility, to excavate 200,000 tons of acid forming material consisting of coal refuse and coal fines and transport it to the plant, where it is burned to produce electricity.
According to the association’s president, Valerie Tarkowski, the group originally formed because of the Irwin Township site, but they were unable to take it on for a number of years, due primarily to issues of funding and cooperation with other agencies.
“We just thought we’d have to walk away from it,” Tarkowski noted. “It’s been a long, worthy road that has taken a lot of funding.”
The main receiving stream for runoff from the site, Williams Run, was a “dead stream” for a number of years, with no macroinvertebrates or fish living in the polluted waters, leaving a large population of wild brook trout isolated in one of the branches, unable to disperse within the stream due to the pollution levels, according to Tarkowski.
Tarkowski noted that seeing life returning to that stream, and other streams at other sites the association has worked with is both a goal and a reward of the work they do.
“It’s been fun, it’s been a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding,” said Tarkowski.
McDonnell spent a portion of the morning touring the entire site, along with Sen. Scott Hutchinson, Rep. R. Lee James, and representatives from Scrubgrass Generating and the Watershed Association.
“We’re continuing to implement the Abandoned Mine Land pilot program. The federal government has given us some significant grant dollars for which has really allowed us to address some of these harder sites – sites there really wasn’t a funding solution for in the past,” McDonnell told exploreClarion.com.
“We also know we need to do more, which is why the governor proposed – and we’ve been supporting – the Restore Pennsylvania initiative: 4.5 billion dollars to do a number of things, but the key part of that is addressing issues as the communities find them, and this is a great example.
“They knew it needed to be addressed, but hadn’t seen a solution to it. That funding from the pilot program was critical for us to start to address this and funding sources are critical for us to accelerate that.”
Restore Pennsylvania is a statewide plan to aggressively address the Commonwealth’s vital infrastructure needs, including cleanup of abandoned mine sites, which pollute waterways. Funded through a severance tax, Restore Pennsylvania is a plan intended to help make Pennsylvania a leader in the 21st century.
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