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EPA Budget Cuts Jeopardize Acid Mine Drainage Cleanup in the Susquehanna River Basin

Our report series, Rough Waters Ahead, written with Environment America Research & Policy Center, tells the story of the EPA’s work to protect and restore our nation’s great waterways – including the Delaware River Basin and the Susquehanna River basin – and how the Trump administration’s proposed budget would affect them. Our previous post described how the EPA funded local groups to help restore the Blackfoot watershed in Montana. In this post, we bring you a story of how the EPA funded a local association’s efforts to clean up acid mine drainage in the Miller Run watershed near Altoona in Huntingdon County.

Coal mining in the Susquehanna River basin has scarred the landscape and causes water pollution. As a result, more than 2,000 miles of streams in the Susquehanna River basin are so polluted by mine drainage that they cannot fully support aquatic life. But EPA funding is supporting state and local initiatives to clean up the Susquehanna River basin and restore the vitality of its waterways.

Coal mines near Miller Run, a tributary of Shoup’s Run located near Altoona in Huntingdon County, had operated since the early 1900s, and predated federal regulations that required that coal mines limit their environmental impacts. After the mines were abandoned, acid mine drainage dumped highly acidic, metal-heavy water into Miller Run. By the 1990s, Miller Run had high levels of metal and acidity, to the point that fish could only be found upstream of the most significant acid mine drainage impacts.

Starting in 1998, the newly founded Shoup’s Run Watershed Association received grant funding from sources including a state-administered EPA grant program to clean up Miller Run. The watershed association installed passive treatment systems, including limestone ponds and wetlands, to decrease the acidity of runoff and help the heavy metals to settle out of the water naturally. In total, since the late 1990s, approximately $500,000 – including $300,000 through the EPA’s 319 Grant Program for non-point source projects – were spent on 11 projects to clean up Miller Run, which have restored the health of the stream.

In 2012, the state assessed water quality in Miller Run and found that it met standards for aquatic life. Indeed, more than a decade of restoration work helped to revive the native brook trout fishery, which is one of the last remaining populations of wild brook trout in the Broad Top area of Huntingdon County. In spite of the success of the Miller Run project, and hundreds of others across the country, the Trump administration’s budget proposal would zero out the grant program to states that helped fund Miller Run’s restoration.

This is just one story of how the EPA has worked to protect and restore the Susquehanna River basin. Our new report, Rough Waters Ahead: The Impact of the Trump Administration’s EPA Budget Cuts on the Susquehanna River Basin, illustrates the EPA’s work with six additional case studies, and shows that now is not the time to hobble the EPA’s essential work to protect clean waterways. Acid mine drainage, urban and agricultural runoff, and excessive discharges from sewage treatment plants, as well as an ailing smallmouth bass population in the mainstem of the Susquehanna River, show that we still have work to do in cleaning up the basin. But budget cuts will put the EPA’s protection, enforcement, restoration, research and education work in danger – threatening the future health of the state’s waterways.

The Susquehanna River basin is critical to the health and welfare of the families, communities and wildlife that call it home. For 40 years, EPA has been working to protect clean water in the basin from threats like mine drainage, agricultural and urban runoff, as well as industrial activity. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the legacy of progress in cleaning up the Susquehanna River basin and ensure that they are healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.

Photo: Acid mine drainage affects thousands of miles of streams and creeks in the Susquehanna River basin. The EPA’s nonpoint source grant program, which has supported restoration projects to clean up streams like Miller Run, would be eliminated under the Trump administration’s budget proposal. Credit: Jakec via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.