By Chris Landers
FROSTBURG-The mountains of Western Maryland are honeycombed with mine tunnels, remnants of a coal industry that once thrived here. The companies that dug the mines have long since made their fortune and moved on, but the tunnels remain, creating problems that could haunt the area for centuries to come.
A clear line divides the bad-old-days of mining from the new, heavily regulated mines of today.
John E. Carey, director of the Maryland Bureau of Mines, calls the old mines “pre-law” – a reference to the 1977 federal act that forced companies to reseed and reforest the areas they have mined as they move along a mountain. That act, along with state laws, put a big stick in the hands of Carey and his inspectors. They can revoke a permit, even put a company out of business, if they don’t comply with regulations.
Today’s companies have to clean up their messes. As Carey put it, “they’re on the hook forever.”
That still leaves the miles of tunnels, abandoned in some cases, for decades. Water running through the mines picks up minerals from the “gob” or unusable rock the miners left behind. When the water merges into local streams and creeks, its orange-red water is acidic and poisonous to fish and wildlife.
Carey can treat the discharge, but he can’t stop it. Mechanical “dosers” discharge lime into the water, balancing the ph levels, but the balance is a delicate one, and sometimes, something in the mountain moves, and changes everything.
That’s what happened in August near Barton, where the McDonald Mine discharges into Georges Creek.
Abandoned since the 1940s, the mine has steadily discharged a stream of acidic water, which was treated at the outfall with lime for the past four years. Carey said they had seen dramatic successes, including a lively fishery downstream.
Then, Aug. 23, the stream suddenly and inexplicably increased its flow and its acidity, overwhelming the lime doser and killing everything for four miles downstream, poisoning the water up to the point where the stream is diluted by the Potomac River.
Carey is an avid outdoorsman – a hunter who would just as soon watch the deer as shoot them, if he didn’t like venison so much. Looking at the dark water joining the idyllic creek he called it “heartbreaking.”
“Everything goes fine for a few years, and you think you’ve got it,” he said. “Then mother nature just laughs.”
Carey said the bureau is still investigating the cause of the increased flow, but he thinks they may never know for sure. Something shifted deep in the old mine – a roof falling in maybe, or a makeshift dam giving way. There was an increased flow here in 1991, he said, and eventually it subsided. There are already signs the current overflow may do the same, but the problem is made worse by drought – there just isn’t enough water in the creek to dilute the acid discharge.
Eventually he says, the minerals will all leech out, but “not in my lifetime.” Acidic discharge from a tunnel nearby has been monitored for a hundred years, and there has been a decrease in acidity. It could be one hundred, even two hundred years before the water runs clean.
At a nearby site, family-owned Tri Star Mining digs into a stump of Pittsburgh coal. Different veins of coal -the layers that stretch through the mountains – have distinctive names, so old that no one seems to know their origin. If coal brought miners to Maryland, the Pittsburgh vein was, and remains, the holy grail.
Pittsburgh coal is such a high grade that it exceeds what power plants need to run their generators. Tri Star will mix a lower grade of coal with it before shipping it, according to Tri Star engineer Ralph Mongold. The vein ran 15 feet deep in some places. It is so valuable that even a stump, the large pillar of unmined coal that the underground deep-miners used to hold up the tunnel roof, is valuable enough for a surface mining company like Tri Star to dig almost 300 feet to get it.
Carey said the Tri Star operation is a good example of today’s surface mining industry – reclaiming the land as they go.
A trip down the back roads of the site are a trip into the past. Following a series of drainage ditches and ponds down the slope, previously mined areas are now grassy slopes, the oldest thicketed with locust trees and underbrush.
The drought has hit here, too. The ponds are dry, their cracked mud bottoms visible. The water runoff they were designed to clean doesn’t exist for now. Mongold said Tri Star barely has enough water to keep the coal dust down as their big machines march along paths on the low side of the mile-long “cut” in the mountain.
Things have changed since the mid-1970s, when Carey, then a geography student at Frostburg State University, took part in an aerial photography project to map the scars left by mining. Then, he said, “the scars were just everywhere.” Now, he says, of the 9,500 acres of cuts, more than half have been reclaimed – about 2,000 acres through state programs, funded largely by a 35-cent per ton federal coal tax, the rest by industry, with regulators looking over their shoulder.
After he graduated, Carey took a job with a mining company. Then, he says, a permit to mine took 3 months to prepare and cost $1200; now the same process takes 6 months and costs around $50,000. The cost and the regulation, he says, results in his office turning down very few permits – coal companies know what they have to do to get approved and submit their plans very carefully.
Maryland only has about 30 active coal mines, and Carey says his inspectors visit them frequently. Most of the willful pollution Carey saw during his early days in the industry is gone. Those companies are out of business. The Maryland coal industry itself has shrunk dramatically from its peak years at the turn of the 20th century when 4 or 5 million tons were mined every year. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, they produced a little over 5,000 tons in 2003.
Carey still sees some corner-cutting, though. Driving down one mountain road he points to a site where trucks stand inactive, and reclamation stands still. The company’s priorities are somewhere else, most likely trying to extract extra coal while the prices are high, but they’ll be getting a reminder soon.
“We still have problems,” he said. “But they’re fewer and farther between.”
Carey points to a former gob pile, now a grassy slope lined with the tracks from four-wheelers. A lime-doser ticks away at a nearby stream.
At another site, cows graze near a set of manmade ponds that filter acidic mine drainage. Carey is proud of the work his bureau has done, which makes the McDonald Mine site all the more frustrating. “That’s the side of coal mining that people think of,” he said. “The sins of the past,” visited on the present.