A new state report details troubling mining legacies in 10 Pennsylvania counties, including Elk, raising questions about the true cost of coal for those communities as new, more modern forms of energy development begin to take root.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) report compiled with University of Pittsburgh researchers is the fourth in an ongoing series detailing the effects of mining in Elk, Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Clearfield, Greene, Indiana, Jefferson, Somerset and Washington counties.
It links the activity to everything from sinkholes to water pollution, while addressing regulatory shortcomings, hurdles and past successes. The data was not detailed by county, but rather given in an overview of area incidents.
The report found a total of 46 underground coal mines were active during the five-year reporting period, 2008 to 2013, beneath 31,343 acres of land. The figure represents an 18 percent decline in the amount of land under-mined during a previous five-year assessment period.
The most recent study found approximately 1,250 different “effects,” or incidents related to mining and reported to DEP by its staff, coal companies or land owners.
Of these, the vast majority involved contamination or loss of wells, springs, and ponds as well as property damage due to subsidence, a gradual caving in or sinking of an area of land. Many are still unresolved years later.
“This report provides vital information about the significance of bituminous mining on Pennsylvania’s landscape,” DEP Deputy Secretary for Active and Abandoned Mine Operations John Stefanko said. “We will use this information to evaluate the effectiveness of our mining program and consider ways to enhance the program in the future.”
In counties like Elk, that future includes a growing natural gas presence as companies, looking to tap into the Marcellus Shale formation, are drawn to the region by lower overhead and developing pipeline infrastructure.
Commissioner Dan Freeburg said he hopes lessons learned from successful state regulation of a coal industry at one time largely unchecked can serve as the framework for Shale development policies going forward.
“No one wants to see a repeat of non-responsible resource extraction as it happened in the late 1800s and early 1900s (with coal),” he said. “There are precautions and safeguards in place to avoid the practices from a hundred years ago that we are still cleaning up after.”
He points to the Bennetts Branch of Sinnemahoning Creek in Weedville and downstream saying the waterway is only now recovering from mining related issues, thanks to “natural recovery as well as a concerted effort and much investment in clean-up.”
“(Energy) companies today must not and cannot get away with what they did 100 years ago,” he said.
“The (natural gas) drilling companies we have had a dialogue with are all aware we’re in a new era of responsible and carefully regulated procedure.”
The DEP report credits improvements in monitoring and data collection with better coal industry oversight, while also touting signs of ecological recovery in many places once devastated by mining.