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Susquehanna Life

From Culm to Clean: Reclaiming Abandoned Mine Land

Mar 17, 2019 06:40AM ● By Emma Eldridge

By Carrie Pauling


Quality of Life

The duality of the coal mining legacy in Pennsylvania—a dirty business that also brought jobs and prosperity—pervades, even as areas of blight dotted with mountains of culm are transformed into usable recreational living space, spurring economic development and rebuilding.

There are two ways to begin a story about coal mining in Pennsylvania. One might sound like this:

Anthracite mining in Northcentral Pennsylvania powered the world for a time. Coal put food on the table and fire in engines. The job boom drew immigrants, and the anthracite region grew to be the third-largest population center in the state of Pennsylvania, bringing diversity in culture, food, music and religion.

Developments in mining spurred human ingenuity and new industrial technology.  Provider of both pride and livelihood, coal stitched into the very seam of the earth, and the seam of the region’s heritage.

Another version might go something like this:

Anthracite mining in Northcentral Pennsylvania was a dirty business. Coal dust clung to everything; streets, clothing, hair, lungs. Underground, the dark, narrow tunnels snaked through the seams of coal where men and boys worked dawn to dusk in unrelenting conditions for unrelenting bosses, and when the coal ran out, the region was paralyzed with unemployment. On the surface, piles of culm—the discarded spoils—grew to mounds, some over 100 feet high. Pools of orange water draining from abandoned mines would eventually soak the ground, polluting nearby streams, trickling into the mighty Susquehanna and southward.

Both pictures are accurate, and both represent the dichotomy that was, and still is, coal mining in Northcentral Pennsylvania.

Pre- and post-mitigation efforts of Espy Run wetlands in Hanover Township, tainted orange from iron oxide. Mitigation includes creating a series of troughs, where water flows from pond to pond, and root systems of water-loving plants help filter out the iron sediments. (Earth Conservancy) 


Rich and gritty, pride and glory

On one hand is the rich and gritty history of anthracite; the pride and glory once associated with the Wyoming Valley. Anthracite—different from bituminous coal mined in Western PA in that it’s the hardest coal found on the planet, and therefore burns longer—isn’t found anywhere else in the world, and literally powered the Industrial Revolution.

And with the decline of mining, so, too, the population, economy and an already taxed environment.On the other hand are the environmental scars, remnants of which still claim the landscape in the form of culm mounds and the skeletons of breakers. Plaques along roadsides remind us of the significance of what once stood in that place. “The Huber Breaker could process 7,000 tons of anthracite daily,” reads one sign in Ashley, PA, where the site of Blue Coal Company’s breaker once stood. “Operations ceased in 1976, following the decline of anthracite mining. It was demolished in 2014.”

The smokestack (left) is all that remains of the Huber Breaker in Ashley, PA, where the Miner’s Memorial Park pays tribute to the workers who risked their lives to work in the mines. (George Harven) At its height, Blue Coal Co. employed 1,755 people. Blue Coal Co. headquarters (right) now houses the offices of EC and EPCAMR. (Carrie Pauling)


The decline

As WWI came to an end, so too did the supply of attainable anthracite. Coal technologies were replaced with oil and gas, which were cheaper and easier to obtain, and by the end of WWII, the demand for anthracite dwindled.

“Coal companies either bailed or divested themselves,” said Robert Hughes, director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR), an organization formed in 1997 to encourage the reclamation and redevelopment of land affected by mining.

Now, abandoned mine lands cover 250,000 acres of the state’s landscape, and an estimated 5,000 miles of PA waterways are contaminated with water that filled the abandoned mines and reacted to chemicals in the exposed rock, called acid mine drainage.

Comeback through reclamation

A culm bank mars the beauty of the natural landscape. Iron, aluminum, and manganese leech from culm piles into groundwater. Culm can catch fire, and abandoned land encourages trespassing and illegal dumping. Photo credit: Carrie Pauling

 Blue Coal Corp. closed in the 1970s, abandoning 16,496 acres. The property bumped along through bankruptcy court from the late 1970s until it was purchased in 1994 by a non-profit called Earth Conservancy (EC). Today, EC and EPCAMR are both located in Blue Coal Co.’s former headquarters. EPCAMR focuses on community outreach and education, while EC is actively reclaiming the land through environmental intervention: stabilizing abandoned mine shafts, disposing of culm banks, cleaning up garbage from years of illegal dumping, seeding with new grass and addressing impacted water from acid mine drainage. One of its goals is to provide 10,000 acres for recreation and open space.

“Reclamation is absolutely necessary to make the area more inviting for recreational use, and for residential and economic development,” said Mike Dziak, president and CEO of EC, formed to address the impacts of past coal-mining operations in Northeast Pennsylvania.  

Since its formation, EC has reclaimed, sold and donated over 8,310 acres, with plans for another 8,308. The overall objective is to donate 10,000 acres as green space for recreation, and sell most of the remaining land to developers to spur economic development.

It’s a complicated and expensive process, funded in part by federal and state grants. Some of the money for reclamation comes from the sale of reclaimed land to developers, and still other funds come from the sale of culm—the very material that’s been piled up for two centuries—to combined heat and power plants (CPH), also called cogeneration plants, which burn the leftover coal and recycle the waste heat to produce more efficient energy.

“Over the course of 20-plus years, seven to ten million tons of material from our acreage has returned into the system as energy,” said Dziak.

Revitalizing the economy

Cleaning up the environment is crucial. Bringing jobs and economic revitalization is equally important to the Wyoming Valley region. In Hanover Township, 185 acres became the site of a two-million-square-foot industrial park, home to three distribution centers, including Chewy.com.

“We’re looking at 1,000 full-time jobs in that business park,” said Dziak. Another 100 acres further east of the Huber Bank site is underway, with the new South Valley Parkway extension connecting Wilkes-Barre to Nanticoke on property that EC donated.

Focus on fun

Earth Conservancy’s commitment to green space includes trail systems, recreational parks and conserved lands. One such project is the Penobscot Ridge Mountain Bike Trail, completed in 2005.  The area–1,557 acres in all–encompasses large reclaimed tracts to the south of Wanamie, and conserved properties along Penobscot Ridge. The official trail begins at one of two trailheads, both of which have parking and picnic facilities.  There is a main riding path, generally easy to moderate, which is suitable for families. There are also many unofficial trails throughout the area. Overall, the combination of trails, open fields, woodlands, valley views and non-dangerous mine features offer users a varied, fun and rewarding ride.

In total, recreation projects include 55 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails; six parks/heritage centers/recreation areas; nearly 7,000 acres of open space; a residential golf community; and a 37-mile scenic drive through the Wyoming Valley.

A final word

The story of coal mining in Pennsylvania is ongoing. As the culm banks slowly disappear, and the waterways run clearer, anthracite heritage will not be forgotten. Coal was the industry that powered Northcentral PA—and America—even as the region and country seek to reclaim a new identity.

Learn more about Earth Conservancy’s efforts at earthconservancy.org. Interested in volunteering with EPCAMR? Visit epcamr.org for opportunities. Learn more about Earth Conservancy Projects here.

If You Go

The areas reclaimed by Earth Conservancy comprise some of the best hiking trails in the region. One of the easiest to access is Penobscot Ridge Mountain Bike Trail (1.2 miles). The western trailhead is off of West Main Street in Wanamie. From SR 29, Exit 2, turn onto South Main Street, heading towards Alden. Follow approximately 4 miles, continuing onto Middle Road and then East Kirmar Avenue. Turn left onto West Kirmar Avenue. Follow another 2 miles and turn left onto West Main Street. Parking is available. Please note: Trails are open from dawn until dusk. Respect private property by staying on designated paths. Remember to leave no trace and pack out anything brought in. A topographic version of the original trail map is available at earthconservancy.org.


Carrie Pauling is a freelance writer based in the Williamsport area.

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