U.S. Water News Online
LATROBE, Pa. -- Pennsylvania is trying to find a solution
to a multibillion-dollar problem left over from its days as a coal
production leader -- What to do with the billions of gallons of
orange, acidic water pouring out endlessly from its abandoned
In one experiment, the resulting sludge is being turned into
powdered metals. In another, the water may be used to make a
different kind of powder -- snow.
The state has so far awarded $4 million in grants to businesses,
academics and entrepreneurs to find creative uses for the water and
its deposits of iron oxide and, to a lesser extent, aluminum,
manganese, zinc, nickel and cobalt.
"It's about having others chip in to solve the $15 billion price
tag for cleaning up the problem," said Kathleen McGinty, the state
environmental protection secretary.
The lessons learned here could help in other mining states,
particularly in West Virginia, Kentucky and western Maryland, where
the geology is similar.
Pennsylvania's mines are flooded with as much as two trillion
gallons of water, according to state officials, who base the number
on the amount of coal removed. That's almost two cubic miles of
water, or enough to cover Los Angeles in 21 feet of water, based on
calculations by the U.S. Geological Survey.
The polluted water flows out through about 5,000 mine shafts or
holes and is contaminated with iron oxide, a byproduct of pyrite that
was exposed by mine shafts cut deep into the earth. It has turned
thousands of miles of Pennsylvania waterways acidic, coated the
bottoms of some rivers with an iron-based orange paste and killed off
fish and plant life.
What's worse, the water in the mines is constantly replenished by
the water table. Only a small number of the leaks are treated,
generating tons of doughy sludge each day with nowhere to go except a
Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money are available to
deal with mining damage around the country, but with a focus on
cleanup. Taking a new tack, Pennsylvania is trying to find a way,
essentially, to recycle the waste. The first grants were awarded in
The Loyalhanna Watershed Association, in southwestern
Pennsylvania, received $211,000 to try routing high-pressure mine
runoff through turbines to generate electricity at a sewage treatment
Association member Floyd Eiseman remembered seeing the water blast
from holes drilled into a flooded underground mine by a highway crew.
"That was spouting out at 7,500 gallons a minute, and I looked at
that and I thought, `Whoa, there's no way this energy can go to
waste,"' Eiseman said.
Other grants went to:
In the state's northwest corner, St. Mary's Pressed Metals makes
high-end ball bearings for use in everything from automobiles to
appliances. It has been experimenting with using metals from the
sludge to replace more expensive powdered metals.
"We were pretty skeptical," St. Mary's general manager Jim Aiello
said. "The next thing you know, we're pressing it and forming
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