Contaminated water seeping from abandoned coal mine areas is the most severe water pollution problem in the coal fields of the Appalachian mountains of the eastern United States. Although there are many possible contaminants in and around abandoned mines, the most common and severe problem is the formation of acid mine drainage, which can kill fish and aquatic insects, stunt plant growth, eat away concrete and metal structures, raise water treatment costs, and color stream banks and beds a bright, rusty, garish orange. In addition, acid mine drainage can leach toxic concentrations of metals like iron, and aluminum from mine rocks, causing further contamination of creeks, rivers, and ground water. The problems of coal mine drainage are not always from acid mine drainage; toxicities of certain metals and even alkaline mine drainage can cause water quality problems in the eastern United States. In short, this pollution degrades habitats, causes safety problems, ruins the natural aesthetics, and has a negative economic impact in general.
The vast majority of impacts are from mines and mining practices of the past, predating a 1977 law enacted by the U.S. Congress known as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA). In simple terms, SMCRA requires coal mining concerns to operate in an environmentally sensitive way, and holds them responsible and accountable for their actions. Mining activities prior to that point were under much less stringent rules, and the mining methodologies favored the economics of extracting the coal at the lowest possible cost. Environmental considerations were not a high priority, and often not a priority at all. A common practice for mining operations was to liquidate their assets and abandon their operations after the coal was exhausted, then declare bankruptcy. This convenient mechanism allowed operators to simply walk away from the problems the mining activity created, leaving a scarred landscape for future generations to contend with.
While millions of public and private dollars in water treatment have been spent on abandoned mine drainage (AMD), serious problems remain. More than 7,500 miles of Appalachian streams are affected by AMD, with 80 percent of them in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Of the streams assessed in Pennsylvania, roughly 2,500 miles are known to be impacted by AMD. As a more thorough inventory of stream conditions is compiled, this number will most certainly increase.
Imagine growing up thinking that ORANGE is a natural color for a stream. In our part of the country, we've had kids grow up in areas where the water all runs red or orange. And when something's "always been that way" -- at least for your lifetime -- you might not question it. Congressman John Murtha speaks about the problem and solutions.