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A Mine's Still-Toxic Legacy

Ken Pavol, a fishing guide in Western Maryland, walks along Georges Creek in Barton. In August, an increase in the discharge of toxic water from an old coal mine killed fish and insects in the creek.
Ken Pavol, a fishing guide in Western Maryland, walks along Georges Creek in Barton. In August, an increase in the discharge of toxic water from an old coal mine killed fish and insects in the creek. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 3, 2006

BARTON, Md

Some of the most poisoned water in Maryland flows out of a hillside here, its color like Coca-Cola and its acidity in the same range as stomach juices.

The water runs through a culvert into Georges Creek, turning it the colors of the autumn leaves overhead. For four miles downstream, hardly anything is alive.

"Everything died. Everything died here in this stream," fishing guide Ken Pavol said one recent morning.

The source of the problem is an abandoned coal mine, one of more than 150 in Western Maryland that leak groundwater tainted with acid and dissolved metals. In August 2005, this particular trickle turned into a torrent stronger and far more caustic than it had been.

More than a year later, the state is still studying its options, and this stretch of Georges Creek is still dead. For frustrated residents, the situation is a reminder of coal mining's bleak environmental legacy: After more than two decades of cleanups here, the hills are still leaking pollution.

"This area was blessed with coal. I mean, what a blessing!" Pavol said sardonically.

Now, he said, the deep mines are mostly closed, and the mining jobs are mostly gone. "This is what's left."

Among the things that Maryland's western panhandle has that the rest of the state doesn't -- bears, mountains and ski resorts -- there is coal. The area sits on the eastern fringe of the great Appalachian coal field, which starts in Alabama and stretches to Lake Erie. At their peak in the early 1900s, Maryland's mines produced more than 5 million tons of coal a year.

One of those mines was here in Barton, a small town in Allegany County. The McDonald mine, as it was known, eventually comprised about 100 acres underground, divided into "rooms" that were only as high as the coal seam, about four feet, state officials say.

State records indicate that the mine probably closed in the 1940s, when a shift to strip mining on the surface shuttered deep mines across the state.

The mines were abandoned, but they were not empty. Over time, groundwater percolated through the rock and reacted with minerals in the mine walls and oxygen in trapped air. The water became saturated with metals such as iron and aluminum, and it became as much as 1,000 times as acidic -- 3.5 on the pH scale -- as a normal stream.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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