The West Branch of the Susquehanna River is coming back to life.
Trout Unlimited has released its West Branch Susquehanna Recovery Benchmark Project findings and the results show a tremendous improvement in the water quality, fleshing out in more brook trout and insect life in the West Branch in many places that were considered "dead" due to acid mine drainage, the number one source of pollution to Pennsylvania's waterways.
In just 25 years, there's 92 percent less aluminum in the river, and in 10 years, there's been a 3,000 percent increase in fish caught at Hyner, said Rebecca Dunlap, a biologist and manager of Trout Unlimited's Eastern Abandoned Mine Program, which is based in offices in downtown Lock Haven.
Plus, researchers found 13 new fish species where they hadn't previously been.
"In other words, where there was some (fish), there's more; where there was none, there's some. This is tremendous news," Dunlap said.
The presence of trout is crucial on many levels, she said.
"We see the trout as our canary in the coal mine: If a stream no longer has brook trout we know that ecologically, something is wrong. And, we at TU also realize that ecological health is related to economic health," Dunlap said.
Historically, the river has been acidic due to old mining practices, but thanks to the efforts of the state Department of Environmental Protection, countless watershed groups, local conservation districts and Trout Unlimited, "The river is now in a near net alkaline state," according to the study.
This is in contrast to the river in the early 1970s, when its entire length was acidic.
Trout Unlimited, or TU, and its partners have played a major role in the river's recovery, but acknowledge there's still a lot of work to do.
In 1998, TU tackled acid-mine drainage in the Kettle Creek Watershed in Clinton County, met by huge success. They decided to do the same on a larger scale and established the West Branch Susquehanna Restoration Initiative in 2004.
Thanks to multiple treatment systems for acid mind drainage-impaired waterways, the river's healthier than it has been in decades. A key project partner was the Kettle Creek Watershed Association (www.kettlecreek.org.). The overall project encompassed about 150 miles of the West Branch of the Susquehanna, from its headwaters near Carrolltown in Clearfield County to Lock Haven.
Historically, the West Branch has been polluted by acid mine drainage, causing a low pH and, in some cases, high levels of metals in the watershed.
TU researchers tested water quality at 48 of the sites sampled in a 1984 study that were polluted by acid drainage. They also tested water at nine river sites and 23 tributaries, along with some samples at larger subwatersheds to "include every acid mine drainage-impacted tributary entering the river from its headwaters to Lock Haven," a total of 80 sites, according to the study.
In partnership with TU, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission sampled fish along a 144-mile stretch of the upper and middle West Branch Susquehanna River between June and August 2009.
- According to the report, the river is now in a near net alkaline state and concentrations of acidity, iron, and aluminum have all decreased over the last 25 years.
- 85 percent of West Branch tributaries had a higher pH than they did in 1984 (which means less acidity, producing a more conducive environment for plant and fish life).
- 79 percent of the acidity concentrations were lower.
- 68 percent of the iron concentrations were lower.
- 92 percent of the aluminum concentrations were lower.
- A total of 35 fish species were collected in the river including two species of hatchery trout. In addition, five species were collected that were not detected during the previous surveys, according to the report.
- Fish diversity increased or was similar to previous surveys.
- Successful reproduction is occurring (multiple age classes collected).
- Some fish species were found in places where there was previously less or none of those species.
As of 2010, Pennsylvania spent $11 million in the watershed to correct problems caused by acid mine drainage for drinking water supplies, according to the study. The Commonwealth also completed 210 remining projects and reclaimed 5,100 acres of abandoned mine lands in the watershed.
TU wanted to document the improvements on a watershed-scale to show that the money spent was worth it, and to provide a benchmark of current conditions for future evaluations, Dunlap said.
The fact that there are fish in places that previously could not support life shows the efforts of TU, watershed groups, and many others, are paying off.
Amy Wolfe, director of TU's Eastern Abandoned Mine Program, is very encouraged by the river's progress.
"As little as 10 years ago, no one would have believed that water quality could be improved enough in the river and other streams so that fish, especially native brook trout, could return. But with the mine drainage treatment technology that exists today, combined with the dedication and perseverance of so many community-based groups across the watershed, it's no wonder we are starting to see miles and miles of the region's waterways return to life," Wolfe said.
The one complication she foresees is funding.
"The only limiting factor to accomplishing more widespread restoration is the funding. It is becoming ever more difficult to obtain money from federal and state grant programs in order to address mine drainage pollution," Wolfe said.
MORE TO DO
Although the river has shown marked recovery, there's still a lot of work to do, Dunlap said.
Acid-mine drainage still impacts 1,205 miles of streams in the West Branch watershed.
"Only 10 of the 68 tributaries sampled were found to have water quality that met all Chapter 93 water quality criteria," Dunlap and her team wrote. "Fish species diversity and total abundance are still relatively low when compared to other non-AMD impacted streams."
The bad news is that acid mine drainage is the number one factor harming fish populations, Dunlap said.
The good news is the same.
In other words, while there's still more clean-up work to do, TU's work shows that it can be done and the technology exists to accomplish it.
The appearance of fish doesn't just affect nature lovers, Dunlap said. Healthy streams vastly affect the local economy. The acid mine drainage in streams cost the local economy $22.3 million a year, revenue that would otherwise be gained through sport fishing, Dunlap said.
Trout can't live in water severely affected by mine drainage, and that means less fishing.
Dunlap explained that what happens in the water circles back to us.
"If there are no people coming here, there is no bait shopping, no gasoline bought ... you get the picture," she said.
It also affects property values.
In Clearfield County alone, an estimated $4 million in property value has been lost because so many single-family residences are located within 200-feet of AMD-impacted water, according to TU.
Then there are the health effects. Metals, such as iron, "may increase the occurrence of neurodegenerative disease," wrote Dr. Brian Schwartz, of Geisinger Medical Center's Environmental Health Institute in the West Branch Susquehanna Subbasin Acid-Mine Drainage Remediation Strategy.
There are multiple benefits of cleaning up the waterways from mine drainage. Not only would there be additional tax revenue from the boost in the economy, but there would be local jobs created for the remediation projects, according to TU.
Prior to the 1970s, regulations governing coal mining only went as far as to protect the miners, but not the environment. But coal mining was important to the area, Dunlap said.
Pennsylvania supplied a quarter of the nation's coal over the past 200 years. While it was great for the economy, it was not good for the environment, she said.
In 1977, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was passed, requiring restoration of abandoned mines and mandating that mining companies leave a stream as healthy or better than it was when they started, Dunlap said.
However, a lot of damage was already done, and mine drainage is still the number one source of pollution to Pennsylvania's waterways, not agriculture, Dunlap said.
All these years later, she said, taxpayers are still paying to fix those mistakes.
The real culprit is pyrite, or fool's gold, according to Dunlap. When coal is mined, pyrite is dug up with it. That's where the problem starts. Pyrite deep underground is fine; it's when it's exposed to oxygen and water that it creates sulfuric acid, hence acid mine drainage.
Coal was mined uphill so the water ran out, explained Dunlap, who earned a master's degree in biology. That's great for the miners, but terrible for the streams, she said. When acidic water runs out of the mine, it leaches the metals from the surrounding banks, such as iron, aluminum, and manganese. Between the water's acidity and its metal overload, fish and insects don't stand a chance.
Trout need fairly alkaline water to survive. They can survive in water with a pH of 4.5, but really need higher; unfortunately, AMD causes the water to be much lower than that, Dr. Shawn Rummel, the field and research coordinator for the Eastern Abandoned Mine Program with TU, said.
TU's goal is to get the pH back to where it naturally would be; the surrounding sandstone in the area makes the local streams naturally more acidic, so the pH should be around a 5.5 or 6.5, Rummel said.
Basically, a higher pH means lower acidity and a healthier stream.
One area where TU invested a lot of its time and resources was Kettle Creek and one of its tributaries, Twomile Run, considered an important trout stream.
In Pennsylvania, groups have been fighting to reverse these effects for decades. Two types of treatment systems are used for AMD-impacted waterways, Rummel said.
The first and most commonly used is the passive treatment system. One type of passive treatment system uses vertical flow ponds, which is a series of ponds where mine water is redirected to be naturally treated. The ponds' layers are key to neutralizing the water's acidity. The top layer is organic matter, which removes oxygen and binds the metals together, preventing the iron from coating the next layer, limestone. The limestone raises the water's pH, reducing its acidity. The water then flows down into subsequent settling ponds, where the metals "fall out."
Rummel explained that the metals can actually be seen when they're falling out. When the water is a rust orange color, iron is falling out; when it's a milky white, it's the aluminum; when it's streaked with black, that's the manganese. It's rare to see black, since manganese is the most difficult to remove, he said. Fortunately, it's also the least harmful. These metals are also seen when metal-laden water mixes with good water, such as when an unhealthy stream merges with a healthy stream.
The treatment systems are built to intercept mine drainage that goes into the ponds with a pH of three and, after going through the ponds, it flows back into the stream with a pH of 6.5, Rummel said.
There are 300 passive treatment systems in Pennsylvania that treat acid-mine drainage, 46 of which are in the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Annually, 167 of these systems remove 3.5 million pounds of iron, 200,000 pounds of aluminum and manganese, and 23 million pounds of acidity, according to the report.
The passive treatment system is preferred because it requires little maintenance and energy. However, severe acid-mine drainage requires the second sort of treatment, the active treatment system.
One simple active treatment system is a sort of silo built overtop of the impacted stream that constantly pumps neutralizing material, such as limestone, into the water. It's quite effective, but it's costly and requires much more maintenance. The DEP also built some systems that require someone to run them, as well, Dunlap said. There are 34 active treatment systems that treat water from abandoned mines, and 117 on permitted sites in Pennsylvania, according to the report.
Cleaning up the West Branch and its tributaries is important to TU and all of its partners. The final statement in a report by TU called, "Restoring the Wealth of the Mountains: Cleaning up Appalachia's Abandoned Mines" summarizes much of their sentiment.
"We cannot separate the needs of people from the well-being of their lands and waters. In the final analysis, they are the same."