Where old coal mines are oozing toxic brews

Where old coal mines are oozing toxic brews

Some of the most poisoned water in Maryland flows out of a hillside here, its color like Coca-Cola and its acidity in the same range as stomach juices.

The water runs through a culvert into Georges Creek, turning it the colors of the autumn leaves overhead. For 4 miles downstream, hardly anything is alive.

“Everything died. Everything died here in this stream,” fishing guide Ken Pavol said one recent morning.

The source of the problem is an abandoned coal mine, one of more than 150 in western Maryland that leak groundwater tainted with acid and dissolved metals. In August 2005, this particular trickle turned into a torrent stronger and far more caustic than it had been.

More than a year later, the state is still studying its options, and this stretch of Georges Creek is still dead. For frustrated residents, the situation is a reminder of coal mining’s bleak environmental legacy: After more than two decades of cleanups here, the hills are still leaking pollution.

Abandoned, not empty

This area sits on the eastern fringe of the great Appalachian coal field, which starts in Alabama and stretches to Lake Erie. At their peak in the early 1900s, Maryland’s mines produced more than 5 million tons of coal a year.

One of those mines was here in Barton, a small town in Allegany County. The McDonald mine, as it was known, eventually comprised about 100 acres underground, divided into “rooms” that were only as high as the coal seam, about four feet, state officials say.

Records indicate that the mine probably closed in the 1940s, when a shift to strip mining shuttered deep mines.

The mines were abandoned, but they were not empty. Over time, groundwater percolated through the rock and reacted with minerals in the mine walls and oxygen in trapped air. The water became saturated with metals such as iron and aluminum, and it became as much as 1,000 times as acidic — 3.5 on the pH scale — as a normal stream.

As the mines filled, the nasty liquid started to leak out. In Maryland alone, officials have counted 342 “seeps” of escaping mine water, sometimes more than one seep per mine.

‘Biological desert’

The situation is worse elsewhere. In West Virginia, for instance, the mining industry left more than 2,800 drainage sites. But Maryland was left with a serious environmental problem: By 1980, mine water had polluted 450 miles of streams, according to state figures.

In places, “it was essentially a biological desert,” said Raymond Morgan, a professor who has studied mine drainage at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He said the drainage is harmful in two major ways: The acid kills fish and other things in the water, and a metallic sludge called “yellow boy” keeps insects from living on the bottom.

“It’s probably the most insidious pollutant that we have in the United States, because it’s the two whammies there,” Morgan said.

Since the mid-1980s, government projects have improved some streams in western Maryland, using machines to discharge limestone compounds — “River Rolaids” — that neutralize the acid.

That approach worked at the McDonald mine, which has always had the worst acid drainage in the state. A lime machine was put here in 2002, and by 2005, people were fishing for trout in the formerly dead creek.

Then, last August, something happened. The best guess is that a section of the mine collapsed, releasing a pocket of toxic water. Suddenly, the volume of drainage was seven times what it had been, and the pH was less than 2.5 — normal for a digestive system but terrible for a creek.

“It went from the worst water in the state to the worst water on steroids,” said Joe Mills, an official with the Maryland Bureau of Mines.

As the mine water flowed to the North Branch of the Potomac River, even the mayflies in Georges Creek died.

“As soon as I walked down there, I just saw thousands of dead fish,” said Alan Klotz, who oversees fisheries in the area for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. He said the creek “looked like tomato soup.”

A constant worry

Scientists say the mine water should not concern operators of Washington-area drinking water plants because the pollutants are diluted by the Potomac as they travel downstream. In Barton, though, the creek’s dismal state is a constant worry.

Fifteen months after the surge in volume from the McDonald mine, officials say the acidity and amount of discharge have weakened a bit.

But the river does not look right. As the iron- and acid-laced water hits the clear flow of Georges Creek, it produces a range of colors, from reddish-brown to orange to yellow, an almost cartoonish image of pollution.

Department of the Environment officials said they are monitoring the seep to see if it gets better or worse in the next few months before taking action. They worry about money. Federal funding for cleanup projects comes from a fee on coal mining operations, but Maryland has only a few left, so it gets the minimum amount of aid, about $1.5 million a year.

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