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.

New Regulation Puts Maryland at Forefront of Limiting Emissions from Gas Infrastructure

CCAN Looks to Maryland to Strengthen Rules Further to Fully Address Pollution and Community Concerns

TAKOMA PARK, MD — On Monday, November 16th, regulations will go into effect aimed at limiting methane emissions from certain natural gas facilities in Maryland, including compressor stations and large gas storage facilities. The rule puts Maryland in the vanguard of states working to limit methane emissions from gas infrastructure.

Anne Havemann, General Counsel, CCAN released the following statement in response:

We thank MDE for finalizing this strong regulation. Maryland’s new rule implements standards that should serve as an example to other states looking to limit methane emissions from the gas industry. The rule makes Maryland the first to require gas industry operators to directly notify communities of large blowdown events in their area. These blowdown events are loud, disruptive, and result in the release of vented, uncontrolled emissions. Maryland is now the second state in the nation to promulgate a regulation that requires the gas industry to report planned and unplanned blowdowns from compressor stations. 

Maryland’s new rule likewise implements strong leak detection and repair requirements that other states will look to in setting their own standards. 

Despite its strengths, the rule falls short in some respects and CCAN looks forward to working with MDE to improve upon this important first step in a subsequent rulemaking. 

The volume of gas that triggers the blowdown notification requirements, for example, is too high and will result in high-emitting blowdowns that do not trigger notification requirements. Communities are particularly unnerved by and concerned about these blowdown events. 

Moreover, we believe MDE missed an opportunity to embed environmental justice considerations into its rule. Given that gas infrastructure is increasing in Maryland, CCAN also urges MDE to ensure that environmental justice concerns are addressed in the siting of any new facilities.

State regulations like this are especially important given the EPA’s recent rollback of the methane standards that apply to oil and natural gas industry facilities. We are grateful to the staff of MDE for their hard work on this important rule.

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Contact: Anne Havemann, General Counsel & Foundation Grants Manager, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, (240) 630-2146anne@chesapeakeclimate.org

Meet a CCANer: Kim Jemaine

Virginia mountains

Kim Jemaine is CCAN’s new Virginia Director.

Tell me a little bit about yourself! 

I’m originally from Pretoria, South Africa but have called Virginia home for the last 20 years. I’ve been lucky enough to work throughout the Commonwealth on electoral and issue advocacy campaigns. I have spent the last three years working in the environmental policy realm and come to CCAN from a role as the Public Policy Manager for the League of Conservation Voters. I also received both my degrees from Virginia schools, obtaining a B.A. in International Affairs from the University of Mary Washington and an M.A. in Government with a concentration in Law and Public Policy from Regent University.

What woke you up to the climate crisis?

My awakening to the climate crisis came less from a singular event and more through education and an understanding of science. As a mother, I feel an obligation to be a part of the work to secure a livable planet for our children. Furthermore, my time in the environmental sphere has opened my eyes to the reality that certain demographics bear the weight of layers of injustice, specifically when it comes to climate change, pollution, and environmental degradation. I believe that it’s a moral imperative to confront this fact and do the work to lift those burdens through policy implementation and systemic change. 

What impacts of climate change currently hit home to you? 

I know that in order to secure a livable climate for my daughter, we have to be deliberate about combating climate change now. It is a fight that has been put off for far too long and cannot wait any longer.

What brought you to CCAN? 

CCAN boasts a robust grassroots base as well as a history of legislative victories. This role perfectly marries my experience in grassroots organizing and my recent work within environmental public policy. CCAN is on the forefront of advocating for big, transformative solutions to the climate crisis, and I want to be a part of promoting that vision in Virginia. 

What has inspired you most working with CCAN?

Although I’ve only been with CCAN for a short time, it has been energizing to be surrounded by a team that is so proactive about thinking through, researching, and promoting climate solutions.

What have you contributed to bringing about a clean energy revolution that you are most proud of?

Within my previous role, I was granted an opportunity to play a small part in a number of the climate victories (VCEA, RGGI, and Environmental Justice) during the 2020 Legislative Session in Virginia. 

What do you hope to see happen in terms of climate in the next year?

I’d like to see widespread acceptance of the fact that climate change is real and has to be confronted through deliberate and thoughtful action by legislators, advocates, and industry leaders. 

In terms of policy, I hope to see movement toward transforming our transportation systems and making transit more reliable, accessible, and affordable for all Virginians.

What do you like to do when you’re not working on climate change?

I like to hike, read, travel, eat good food, and spend time with my family.

Who would you high five?

I would high five Dr. Ayana Johnson. She is a marine biologist and works heavily in conservation policy and climate solutions. 

Maryland Poised To Risk Water and Climate With Del-Mar Pipeline Green Light from MDE

Maryland Department of the Environment Recommends DelMar Pipeline Construction Through Wetlands on Lower Eastern Shore 

Annapolis, MD — Today, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) removed a hurdle for the fracked gas Del-Mar pipeline by recommending that the Maryland Board of Public Works approve Eastern Shore Natural Gas’ wetlands construction plans. The wetlands construction license for the pipeline will next be taken up by the Board of Public Works at an upcoming meeting.  
 
In response, Josh Tulkin, State Director of the Maryland Chapter of the Sierra Club released the following statement:
 
“This dirty, dangerous fracked gas pipeline threatens the health of our water, climate, and communities. At a time when clean, renewable energy sources are affordable and abundant, it makes no sense to threaten our water, people, and livelihoods with a fracked gas pipeline that we don’t even need. In fact, 67% of Marylanders want our state to get its energy exclusively from renewables instead of pumping in fracked gas from out of state. We need Governor Hogan and the rest of Maryland’s leaders to invest in clean energy solutions on the Eastern Shore, not fossil fuels like fracked gas.”
 
Anne Havemann, General Counsel for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, stated: 
 
“We’re disappointed that Hogan’s Department of the Environment has recommended a wetlands license for the proposed Del-Mar pipeline for fracked gas down the Eastern Shore. This pipeline wouldn’t be viable without the Governor’s thumb on the scale. We hope the members of the Board of Public Works recognize that the fracked-gas industry is dying and that this pipeline would bring more harm than good. We’re looking to them to listen to the markets and the will of Marylanders, and reject this pipeline.” 

Contact: Doug Jackson, 202.495.3045 or doug.jackson@sierraclub.org

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About the Sierra Club
The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.8 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person’s right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org.