Rough Waters Ahead: Protecting the Delaware River Basin from Abandoned Mine Pollution


Our new report series, Rough Waters Ahead, written with Environment American 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, the Great Lakes, and Puget Sound – and how the Trump administration’s proposed budget would affect them. In our last post, we explained how the Trump administration’s budget proposal would gut the EPA. In this post, we bring you a story of how the EPA helped address a threat to the health of the Schuylkill River and Americans who use the waterway for drinking water, fishing, boating or swimming.

Drainage from abandoned mines is the primary cause of pollution in the headwaters of the Schuylkill River, as old mines in eastern Pennsylvania leak acid and heavy metals into the river. One waterbody that suffered from abandoned mine drainage was Silver Creek, a tributary of the Schuylkill River south of Hazleton, which received pollution from the former Silver Creek Mine.

Acidic discharge can have disastrous impacts on river wildlife. A study conducted in western Pennsylvania shows that iron deposits have been linked to a 95 percent reduction in fish populations, particularly in bottom-feeders like sculpin and suckers, in water closest to the mine discharge site, compared to downstream where the pollution is diluted. Pollution from mines can coat and clog fishes’ gills, smother eggs, and kill plants that provide food for fish.

Drainage from the former Silver Creek Mine was polluting Silver Creek and the Schuylkill River with acidic water laden with heavy metals (left). A passive system now treats the acid mine drainage water and discharges the treated water to Silver Creek (right). Photos courtesy of Schuylkill Action Network.

The EPA granted the Schuylkill Headwaters Association and its partners $858,402 to treat drainage from the abandoned Silver Creek Mine. In 2010, the groups installed passive limestone treatment systems consisting of five successive pools that slow the water down, allowing the heavy metals to precipitate before the water flows through two artificial wetlands that balance acidity. The pools treat 1,200 gallons of water per hour, remove heavy metals, and improve the water acidity from low to neutral, before the treated water is discharged into the Schuylkill River in Port Carbon.

The same EPA grant program that enabled the work in Silver Creek granted the Schuylkill Headwaters Association another $458,772 in 2015 to address acid mine drainage from the Reevesdale South Dip mine project.

The grant program that funded these and other projects would be eliminated in the Trump administration’s current budget proposal, slowing efforts to control the flow of pollution from abandoned mines. There are 539 abandoned mines in counties that at least partially drain into the Delaware River watershed. These abandoned mines have had 2,178 “high priority” problems since 1984, including 27 problems labeled as threats to human water consumption. Cleaning up and restoring abandoned mines is essential to protect drinking water sources and aquatic environments from dangerous relics of past human activity.

The Silver Creek acid mine drainage treatment system is a passive system that does not require electricity or pumping to cleanse the water as it flows from the first pond (top) to the outfall (bottom) through a series of ponds. Credit: Google Earth ©2017.

This is just one story of how the EPA has worked to protect and restore the Delaware River Basin. Our report, Rough Waters Ahead: The Impact of the Trump Administration’s EPA Budget Cuts on the Delaware River Basin, illustrates the EPA’s work with eight additional case studies, and shows that now is not the time to hobble the EPA’s essential work to protect clean waterways. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the legacy of progress in cleaning up the Delaware River Basin and ensure that it is healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.

Caption: Kayaking on the Delaware River. Photo: Jim Pennucci/Flickr CC BY 2.0.