Acid Mine Drainage: The Weirdest and Worst Fossil Fuel Impact You’ve Never Heard Of

In fall 2019, I moved from Minnesota to Washington, DC to attend George Washington University. My one and only pre-COVID semester was a rollercoaster in many respects, but in one of my classes, I found myself doing intense research on an environmental phenomenon called acid mine drainage. It’s something I’d never heard of, but it’s representative of the dangers of fossil fuels, and I think more people should know about it. 

When coal mining began in Appalachia and western Maryland at the advent of the Industrial Revolution, there was little regard for the environment (as was the case with many practices back then). Early on, I found a book about the history of western Maryland, published in 1882. It was my first book request at the school library — three thousand pages, in two volumes, the latter of which I had to request from another school. 

The first volume was enlightening. Nowadays, we often describe environmental damage using language with negative connotations (as one should).  But back then, someone described the runoff as “a little stream with yellow waters.”[i] In those days, people really had no idea what they were doing to the environment.

Mining runoff, and specifically acid mine drainage, occurs when metals associated with abandoned coal mines oxidize, dissolve into the water, and eventually incorporate into the sediment.

Part of the beautiful Chesapeake Bay we have to work hard to protect

Importantly, this drainage also turns the water acidic (hence the name acid mine drainage), and gives it a bright orange color.

As Maryland and the Chesapeake became more urbanized, the number of places for mining runoff to drain has decreased because concrete can’t absorb water. The “yellow waters” that have persisted since coal companies abandoned their mine lands have no choice but to drain into the tributaries that drain into the Susquehanna and the Potomac’s north branch; those rivers drain to the already endangered Chesapeake Bay.

This phenomenon is clearly problematic for the Chesapeake Bay as a whole, but also causes real damage to the land surrounding the smaller tributaries.

It can even reduce housing prices nearby by around 12.2 percent.[ii] Acidic, orange water is obviously an issue for communities near these water bodies. The water is not drinkable, nor can it be used for recreation. It also kills the local wildlife and inhibits the reproduction of important species such as the brook trout in Maryland.[iii]

Through my research, I also learned about attempts to abate the acid mine drainage in the Chesapeake specifically. I thought I had found a river which would have been perfect, but it drained west, nowhere near the Chesapeake. I then came across a report by the Chesapeake Bay Program entitled “Acid Mine Drainage to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed – Literature Synthesis,” which was exactly the type of document I needed! However, the website didn’t have the report attached, just an EPA report number. Turns out, the report was technically at the EPA library in Philadelphia; I freaked out briefly, wondering how on earth I was supposed to get the paper, but then I remembered that that’s why I have access to a research library. GW was able to pull it online for me, and this would also be the last of my research hiccups. In hindsight, they’re quite humorous and feel very representative of a first attempt at a research paper in undergrad.

An example of the brook trout; they are an indicator species, meaning that they can help show the overall health of a water body

This paper helped me learn about the actual solutions for acid mine drainage, as there are several. The first is a neutralizing agent, such as lime. When you put it in the acidic water, it solidifies (precipitates) the heavy metals, and makes it so that you can actually remove the metals that are causing the drainage. 

Another solution is reclamation, which attacks the drainage at its source: the mine. Reclamation basically means that you’re restoring the original mining land to the point where it looks like the mine was never there. 

These projects have proven to be wildly successful, turning old mine lands into recreational spaces and stopping the runoff at the same time. That being said, reclamation and neutralization are expensive, but are now eligible for federal grants because of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. Basically, this law taxes coal production and uses that money to mitigate the lasting effects of mining. The legislation is by no means perfect and has some enforcement issues, but at the state level, agencies like the Maryland Department of the Environment have been able to put that money to good use, and one study has shown that the abatement measures have restored the aforementioned brook trout population in some tributaries.[iv] In short, this issue is being tackled quite well through an effective federal-state partnership program. 

Yet it brings to mind the larger question: What could we have been doing if we didn’t have to spend so much time and money cleaning up neon-bright orange pollution from our rivers over the past century?

The presence of acid mine drainage I feel like is only further proof that we need to phase out coal as energy (which disproportionately hurts predominantly Black communities like Brandywine, MD!) and continue to work to heal the natural areas that we so desperately need to protect. 

What’s more, all this just goes to show how decisions we make now have incredible implications for future generations — just like mining in the 1880s has had for us. Western Maryland is also where gas companies now want to frack, so we should do everything we can to try and stop it. 

This is why CCAN is putting forth the Maryland No New Fossil Fuels campaign, pushing bills for greenhouse gas reduction, and a Maryland Climate Stimulus for coronavirus recovery (sign that petition here). Through my internship this semester at CCAN, I’ve found that it’s more possible than you might think to make a more livable planet in the future, and that it’s actually possible to pass sweeping legislation when you have strong organizers and volunteers. I’m grateful to have made a difference and look forward to continuing my involvement in the environmental community in the future.

References:

[i] Scharf, J. T. (1882). History of western Maryland Being a history of Frederick, Montgomery, Carroll, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties from the earliest period to the present day; Including biographical sketches of their representative men. Philadelphia, PA: L.H. Everts.

[ii] Williamson, J. M., Thurston, H. W., & Heberling, M. T. (2008). Valuing acid mine drainage remediation in West Virginia: A hedonic modeling approach. Annal Regional Science, 482, 987-999.

[iii] Sell, M. T., Heft, A. A., Kazyak, D. C., Hilderbrand, R. H., & Morgan, R. P., II. (2014). Short-term and seasonal movements of brook trout in the upper Savage River watershed, Garrett County, Maryland. Wild Trout Symposium XI–Looking Back and Moving Forward, pp. 357-362.

[iv] Loucks, C., & Shanks, K. (2014, August). Mitigating acid mine drainage improves pH levels in Aaron Run (EPA 841-F-14-001UU). United States Environmental Protection Agency.