In the early 1970s, fish couldn’t survive in the Aylesworth Reservoir Lake in Jermyn, Pa.
Acid mine drainage from an abandoned coal mine leaked into Aylesworth Creek, which flows into the four-acre waterway. Because of the drainage, water becomes highly acidic and harms fish and local ecosystems.
Federal funding secured in the 1990s helped to construct an acid mine drainage treatment facility about a half mile from the lake, said Bernie McGurl, the executive director of the Lackawanna River Conservation Association. It fell into disrepair and in the early 2000s was restored again with federal funding.
“That’s helping to buffer the water here and it’s doing a good job because we can sustain the fish here,” he said.
Listen to the story:
On Tuesday, April 11, around two dozen anglers lined the shore of the lake at Aylesworth Park. They were waiting for the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission and U.S. Senator Bob Casey to stock the water with trout.
Casey was at the Lackawanna County park to not only help the commission with its annual stocking but to celebrate the passage of the STREAM Act. STREAM stands for Safeguarding Treatment for the Restoration of Ecosystems from Abandoned Mines.
Federal spending bill includes long-term cleanup of streams polluted by abandoned mines
Casey was also there to discuss more federal funding for Pennsylvania to remediate the impact of coal mining. The November 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included more than $11 billion for the national Abandoned Mine Land Program. PA will receive over $244.9 million yearly, for a total of over $3.7 billion, over the next 15 years.
“We’re going to get a third of all the federal money for Abandoned Mine Land dollars,” Casey said.
Pennsylvania is home to one-third of the nation’s abandoned mine land; around 43 of 67 counties are impacted by abandoned coal mines.
That historic infrastructure bill from 2021 had a defect, said Casey. It didn’t allow states to allocate any of that funding to clean up acid mine drainage, despite the fact that previous programs did. There are over 5,500 miles of Pennsylvania streams that are impacted by acid mine drainage, Casey said
He worked with Democratic U.S. Rep. Matt Cartwright and their Republican colleagues to sponsor the STREAM Act. Now, states can set aside 30% of their annual Abandoned Mine Land Program funding into an account for the treatment and abatement of acid mine drainage.
Pennsylvania also received an additional $26 million in federal funding for abandoned mine land cleanup.
With the funding, the state can treat pre-1977 abandoned coal mines and treat pre-1977 acid mine drainage, said Patrick Webb, from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
Underground mining of Anthracite Coal began in the Lackawanna River Watershed in the 1820s. The impact of that industry is part of the history of Northeast Pennsylvania, Casey said. But he pointed out that the people of the region consistently insist that officials at all levels of government make investments to clean up the damage.
“You can see it playing out in places where you … didn’t even want people getting close to the body of water now they’re fishing and enjoying it,” he said standing near the shore of the lake at Aylesworth Park.
McGurl said there is still an unmet need for reclamation both on land and in the water.
“This legislation is going to be a big help … but we still got to keep our sleeves rolled up,” he said. “There’s a lot more work to do in this watershed.”