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A Mine's Still-Toxic Legacy
Surge in Polluted Water Sets Back Creek Cleanup In Maryland Coal Country

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.

As the mines filled, the nasty liquid started to leak out. In Maryland alone, officials have counted 342 "seeps" of escaping mine water, sometimes more than one seep per mine.

The situation is worse elsewhere. In West Virginia, for instance, the mining industry left more than 2,800 drainage sites. But Maryland was left with a serious environmental problem: By 1980, mine water had polluted 450 miles of streams, according to state figures.

In places, "it was essentially a biological desert," said Raymond P. Morgan II, a professor who has studied mine drainage at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. He said the drainage is harmful in two major ways: The acid kills fish and other things in the water, and a metallic sludge called "yellow boy" keeps insects from living on the bottom.

"It's probably the most insidious pollutant that we have in the United States, because it's the two whammies there," Morgan said.

Since the mid-1980s, government projects have improved some streams in Western Maryland, using machines to discharge limestone compounds -- "River Rolaids" -- that neutralize the acid. In Maryland, 81.5 miles of streams have been restored enough to support life, officials said.

That approach worked at the McDonald mine, which has always had the worst acid drainage in the state. A lime machine was put here in 2002, and by 2005, people were fishing for trout in the formerly dead creek.

Then, last August, something happened. The best guess is that a section of the mine collapsed, releasing a pocket of toxic water. Suddenly, the volume of drainage was seven times what it had been, and the pH was less than 2.5 -- normal for a digestive system but terrible for a creek.

"It went from the worst water in the state to the worst water on steroids," said Joe Mills, an official with the Maryland Bureau of Mines.

As the mine water flowed to the North Branch of the Potomac River, even the mayflies in Georges Creek died.

"It looked like tomato soup, basically," turned red by a high iron content, said Alan Klotz, who oversees fisheries in the area for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "As soon as I walked down there, I just saw thousands of dead fish."

Scientists say the mine water should not concern operators of Washington area drinking water plants because the pollutants are diluted by the Potomac as they travel downstream. In Barton, though, the creek's dismal state is a constant worry.

Fourteen months after the surge in volume from the McDonald mine, officials say the acidity and amount of discharge have weakened a bit.

But the river does not look right. As the iron- and acid-laced water hits the clear flow of Georges Creek, it produces a range of colors, from reddish-brown to orange to yellow, an almost cartoonish image of pollution.

Department of the Environment officials said they are waiting to see if the seep gets better or worse in the next few months before taking action. They worry about money. Federal funding for cleanup projects comes from a fee on coal mining operations, but Maryland has only a few left, so it gets the minimum amount of aid, about $1.5 million a year.

"We're waiting for the situation to stabilize," said department official Richard A. Eskin. "Do we want to spend a half a million dollars or a million dollars, if it's going to go away [by] itself?"

In the meantime, residents are wondering what's taking so long.

If you're not going to fix the worst mine water in Maryland, "what are you going to fix?" asked Bob Miller, who heads the George's Creek Watershed Association. (Locally, the creek's name is often spelled "George's," with an apostrophe.)

And even if the mine's drainage is rendered less toxic, a fundamental problem remains. For all the government's success in treating what comes out of mines, it has made little headway in cleaning up what's inside them: hidden, toxic lakes that are replenished every time it rains.

"We don't have the technology to cure the ill now," said James Cummins, a scientist with the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin.

For the time being, he said, the only thing preventing a McDonald-style collapse at other area mines might be the system of wooden timbers set up by miners decades ago.

"How long does wood last?" he asked.

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