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Confronting acid mine drainage: A conversation with Rural Action’s Marissa Lautzenheiser

This is the first in a series of blogs examining the damages caused by acid mine drainage and solutions for cleanup. Click here for the full series and related materials.

The problems posed by abandoned mine lands come in many forms across places impacted by coal mining — and each contributes to making these communities less healthy, less safe, and less inviting for residents and businesses. Open mine portals can overflow, causing landslides. Dangerous impoundments rupture and cause toxic floods. Gob piles — massive heaps of coal refuse — seep into water sources. Flooded mines blow out, dumping hundreds of gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers. There are risks from hazardous gases, underground fires, clogged streams and more.

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One of the more visible problems caused by abandoned mine operations is the acid mine drainage (AMD) that colors streams, creeks and rivers rust orange with dangerous pollution. These polluted bodies of water are an all-too-common roadside sight throughout coal communities, but they are more than just an eyesore. The ongoing threats posed by AMD threaten the health of people and wildlife and undermine development efforts. The Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) fund has helped clean up many sites impacted by acid mine drainage across the country, but an untold number still exist and clean-up projects already in operation must be operated indefinitely.

Marissa LautzenheiserTo share more about this urgent issue, advocates for abandoned mine land restoration talked to Marissa Lautzenheiser, who leads AMD clean-up efforts for Rural Action in Appalachian Ohio. In this conversation, Lautzenheiser lays out the basics of the AMD challenge, discusses the unique funding needs for AMD clean-up, and talks about some of the innovative work Rural Action is doing to tackle this problem. Check out the video and the longer answers below.

Q: Let’s start with a straightforward question: what causes acid mine drainage (AMD)?

Lautzenheiser: Acid mine drainage can be explained pretty simply as a chemical reaction. You need three components to make acid mine drainage. First is water, which hopefully we will always have. Second is oxygen, which we cannot survive without. And then the one that is the big problem is pyrite.

In Ohio, and in many of the places where they’ve mined coal, what is leftover once the coal is removed is pyrite — the mineral sandwiched on either side of the coal seam. Whenever pyrite comes into contact with water, it’s like a water bottle that you hold under a faucet without turning it off. The water is going to fill the space and then there will be more water than there is space. So it bursts out of a hillside or a ball field or backyard. And when it bursts out of that abandoned mine, it comes into contact with oxygen and it creates acid mine drainage.

The chemical reaction is usually very acidic, and usually leaves a lot of dissolved minerals and metals in the water. One of the most common is iron, and that is why a lot of the acid mine drainage that you see on the side of any back road of Appalachia is orange from the amount of iron concentration that is in the water.

Q: What kind of impacts would that have on fish and wildlife and on the human population of nearby communities?

Lautzenheiser: We’ve seen communities where the streams are completely dead, devoid of fish and bugs. Those places are not going to have businesses move in, those communities are not going to have the same sorts of outside investment coming in. And it makes it really hard for the people who choose to live there. That’s a reason why our region has faced a brain drain. We as humans need healthy places to live and grow families and have jobs. And if you have a waterway that is just devoid of life, those are not going to be the same places that you choose to live.

Acid mine drainage also can accompany some other higher priority hazards associated with abandoned mine lands. So when you have things like gob piles — leftover coal spoil — those areas can be really hard to develop and hard to build homes on.

Every time that you clean up one of those gob piles, you’re stopping acid mine drainage from forming. When you’re taking care of these higher priority abandoned mine land issues, you are actually helping to address some acid mine drainage issues at the same time.

Whenever you have flooding in these areas, the water that floods homes and basements and businesses isn’t clean water if it’s coming out of an abandoned mine. You’re being flooded by acid mine drainage. So, there’s a lot of human health and human safety impacts that are tied up in taking care of abandoned mine lands and acid mine drainage.

Orange water in a shallow stream

Acid mine drainage can stain water and rocks. Photo courtesy of Rural Action

Q: Can you talk more about what AMD means for local economies?

Lautzenheiser: When you look at development in the Appalachian region, the money flows where there is clean water flowing. No one wants to build a home next to an acid mine drainage seep, where your housing water fixtures will rust and fall apart every five years. No one wants to build a home where your basement is going to get flooded and turn orange. No one is going to build businesses where the ground is unstable because there’s an acid mine drainage seep. Our communities have been built around this industry that has left this lingering legacy.

The economic cost of acid mine drainage is high, because it continues to drain our communities of our best and brightest young people, it continues to force our families to make the choice between affordable housing that is next to acid mine drainage or moving out of town to somewhere with clean water and pay more for property and for buildings.

Our region can no longer afford to let our residents and let our communities shoulder the cost of acid mine drainage, because it is a lingering, multi generational problem. We need to be able to have clean waterways, because we know that that is where companies invest, we know that that is where new businesses are started. We know that is where new homes are built. We need to have waterways that are clean enough that they can be a source of recreation and drinking water. Acid mine drainage takes away those opportunities from the communities that it impacts. Acid mine drainage is a continuing lingering legacy that our communities really should not have to put up with anymore.

orange creek labeled 2008, same location pictured with blue-green water in 2011

Millers Run in Pennsylvania was clearly contaminated with acid mine drainage in 2008, but the waterway is visibly improved three years later. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

Q: So can acid mine drainage be cleaned up and, if so, how?

Lautzenheiser: We will never be able to stop acid mine drainage from forming. These old abandoned mines sometimes have complexes that stretch for tens of miles. Entire villages have been built on top of them. So, we need to treat the acid mine drainage before it enters the rest of the waterways that we depend on. We simply have to treat it before it becomes a larger problem for a bigger population.

To address acid mine drainage we can build either passive systems or provide active treatment. Passive systems are where the water passively flows in and is treated and neutralized. We collect the iron, and then healthy water exits the site and goes into a stream better than it would have before. Or, in some of the worst sites, we need to build active systems that divert the water to be actively treated much like a wastewater treatment system. Then, clean water is discharged.

Both of those types of systems are costly. Both of those types of systems are going to need ongoing operation and maintenance costs. With passive systems, every 10 to 15 years, those systems are going to fill up. We need to get in there and dredge out the iron, refresh the limestone, and make sure that pipes aren’t clogged up. And then active systems, you need monthly installations of materials.

Q: Can you talk about some of the ways Rural Action is creating jobs through AMD clean-up?

Lautzenheiser: Rural Action has worked hand-in-hand with our state agencies and with our federal agencies to implement abandoned mine land and acid mine drainage projects over the last 30 years. For the past four years, we’ve been working to prioritize projects that also have the highest likelihood for redevelopment opportunities. We have helped secure almost $6 million worth of grant funds for these special sites. Those projects have helped support 105 direct, indirect and supported jobs in some of the most hardest hit communities in the Appalachian region of Ohio.

One of our keystone projects is going to take an acid mine drainage seep — the worst one in the state of Ohio — and instead of just landfilling all of the iron, we actually are going to turn it into a marketable product. It is going to take a factory, it’s going to take jobs, it’s going to take people hauling this product, making this product, checking the water. We expect to double the payroll in the zip code of where this production facility is going to be located. That is really turning lemons into lemonade, and then selling that lemonade to the rest of the nation and to the rest of the world. We need to start looking at acid mine drainage as something we need to fix, but also as potentially a piece of our infrastructure.

These sites are going to be here for the long term. What else can they be? We have a lot of ingenuity in our region. And if we can figure out how to fix acid mine drainage, if we can figure out how to keep it fixed far into the future, and how to fund the ongoing maintenance and costs, then I have no doubt that we can come up with some really creative ways to support jobs, and to support economic investment in these communities.

acid mine drainage ohio

True Pigments, a social enterprise of Rural Action, broke ground on this research-scale acid mine drainage treatment facility in Corning, Ohio, in December 2017. These tanks were moved to the Truetown Discharge site in 2020, where a full-scale AMD treatment and pigment production facility is expected to enter operation in 2023. Photo by Michelle Shively

Q: What are the risks right now to existing acid mine drainage treatment?

Lautzenheiser: Acid mine drainage projects have a lot of ongoing threats and challenges. One of the biggest ones is that funding ebbs and flows, right. People sometimes decide to care about acid mine drainage, and sometimes they don’t.

One of the biggest challenges is cost. These projects can be expensive to install, usually between $100,000 to $1 million. And then the ongoing operations and maintenance costs are usually about 10 to 15% of the construction cost in passive systems, and even more for active treatment.

The state of Ohio has done a good job in setting back the funding that they get from the state and federal government into a long term trust fund, but not every state has been able to do that. The amount of money that Ohio has saved is still not enough to do ongoing maintenance at the sites we already have. Considering all of the projects that we still need to do and all of the streams and watersheds still impacted by acid mine drainage, we need to make sure that we have enough money just to maintain what we have already built.

Q: What risk does funding instability pose to these clean-up efforts?

Lautzenheiser: There’s been some really good research done out of Ohio University and other partners that looks at what happens when the systems just turn off. What happens if we can’t maintain what we’ve already built? They’ve seen that when you take a doser — a type of active treatment — offline, the reaction by the stream and by the watershed is almost instant. Fish can no longer survive somewhere that they’ve always survived. They immediately evacuate or sometimes just die, because the chemistry is no longer hospitable for them. We know that if we treat acid mine drainage, and then for whatever reason we have to stop treating it, we will see immediate and lingering environmental impacts from that decision.

In the watersheds where I’ve worked, we’ve built a complex series of networks of restoration projects. And we’ve seen the improvement. In 1997, we found one species of fish at the mouth of a stream. That should be where there should be the most biodiversity, because it connects to a larger river system. Since we installed 20 acid mine drainage and abandoned mine land clean-up projects, we’re up to 27 species of fish at that same site. That includes some really awesome sport fish, like Northern Pike, and others that people could eat. We need to maintain those systems, or else all of those improvements will go away.

Q: What is your assessment of the funding proposals out there?

Lautzenheiser: The bipartisan infrastructure bill in Congress includes $11.3 billion that specifically addresses abandoned mine lands. Included in that is the ability for states to build acid mine drainage projects. We are so excited to see this conversation happening. It is timely. We need the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to continue.

We need to really take one last swing and address the priority watersheds that are still polluted. In addition, we need to also make sure that our states have the ability to maintain and fund the projects that are already in existence. So whether it is the infrastructure bill that Congress is considering or whether it is any future funding source, we need to ensure that our states have the ability to set aside funds for long term operations and maintenance. Without the ability to pay for the long term costs, there’s really no reason to keep building these acid mine drainage sites. We need to make sure that we have the funds set aside to maintain what is already here.

Q: What is your main message to the country about acid mine drainage?

Lautzenheiser: Our communities deserve to have clean water, as much as anywhere else in our nation deserves to have clean water.

If you look at where Appalachia was settled, if you look at where our villages and our towns lie, they are next to waterways. We historically relied on our river system to provide transportation, to provide food, to determine where our families settled. I want the Tuscarawas River to be as clean as it was when my family first came here 200 years ago.

woman speaks on video during Congressional committee hearing

Rural Action’s Marissa Lautzenheiser testified about the need to reclaim abandoned mine lands and treat acid mine drainage before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee in March 2021.

That means we have to clean up the acid mine drainage that still exists, and we have to ensure that the funding is there so that these projects can exist in perpetuity. These problems are never going to go away, they are going to always be acid-mine-drainage-polluting sites. What we need to do is to apply the best science, build the best projects, and ensure that they last far into the future so that we can continue to have the clean water we deserve far into the future.

Acid mine drainage is no one’s fault, and it is everyone’s responsibility. We as a nation have depended on the energy that this region and these coal resources helped create. I’m so thankful for the comforts of modern day living, and for all the energy that my family has used for the last 200 years. But that gives me the burden of responsibility to help clean up these lingering legacies that energy stores helped create. We all benefited and we all continue to benefit from the energy that this source helped create. Now, we have to take a good hard look at the communities and at the people that helped shoulder those individual costs. It’s time for us to, to step up and say, we know how to fix this, we’re going to fix this, and it’s gonna be better for the foreseeable future.

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