Two weeks in Maine where the water is clean re-opened my eyes to something I take for granted in Pennsylvania: polluted orange water.
Perhaps you’ve been to this restroom at the Route 528 boat launch in Moraine State Park. The restroom is clean but the water is not. “Notice. Non-potable water. Not for Drinking.” The metallic smell and orange-stained sinks and toilets make you wonder, “If the water’s that bad, should I use it to wash my hands?”
Coal mining contaminated the ground water here(*). The orange water is acid mine drainage. When the coal was removed it exposed pyrite which, when exposed to water, turns into sulfuric acid and iron. Bad water from old surface and underground mines flows into streams and wells in Pennsylvania’s coal regions.
95% of the abandoned mine drainage in the U.S. is right in here in western PA, West Virginia, southwestern Virginia, and far western Maryland. Visitors are shocked by the orange water we’ve come to take for granted. Pennsylvania has more than 3,000 miles of these polluted streams, a problem too huge for individuals to solve.
The good news is that Pennsylvania stepped in with coal mining laws in the 1960’s that prevent new water contamination and PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) can require clean up when an old mine is reopened. Slowly, the worst water is being treated and improved.
That’s how part of the Conemaugh River turned from orange to clear in Somerset County in 2013. See before and after pictures and read about the impressive change here on the Allegheny Front.
(photo by Kate St. John)
(*) There are other ways to expose pyrite. During construction of Interstate-99, excavation and rock-handling on Bald Eagle Ridge exposed pyrite that polluted nearby ground water and Buffalo Run, a high quality stream. Though the pyrite was known to be there, construction plans ignored it. It took two years and $83 million to fix the mistake.