Prove your humanity

This story comes from WVIA News.

Almost half of the Tioga River is polluted by the long-gone mining industry that operated for over a century near Blossburg. 

A $68 million dollar grant will finally clean up the acidic water. For one local couple — Joyce and Charlie Andrews — that’s a relief. 

Rocks on either side of the river are tinted orange from the iron and other materials in the mines.

“On the one side of the bridge the water’s pretty clear,” said Joyce Andrews. “On the other side … that’s where the water starts really turning.”

The Andrews are the backbones of the Tioga County Concerned Citizens Committee (TCCC).

Earlier this year, the state allocated $101 million in federal funding to clean up mine waste around the region. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SBRC) will build an active treatment plant that will treat the five largest mine discharges in the Tioga River Watershed, cleaning up 22 miles of the 58-mile Tioga River. It will restore aquatic life to the river and its tributaries.

The Tioga meets the Chemung River in New York, which flows into the Susquehanna.

A man's arms and hand point to a colorful map on a table outside

Charlie Andrew, president of the Tioga County Concerned Citizens Committee, points to the future treatment plant for the Tioga River. Photo: Kat Bolus / WVIA News

Blossburg is named after Aaron Bloss. He’s considered its first settl a road was cut from Loyalsock to New York and coal was first discovered. 

First came deep mining for bituminous coal followed by strip mining. Water still fills up the mines. There’s nothing on top to absorb the water.

“That’s part of the problem with the mine drainage that we have, why it’s so severe, is that when they strip off the topsoil, then the water goes right down the mine,” said Charlie Andrews.

The TCCC began as an informal group in 1984. They first opposed a landfill in the area that planned to take out-of-state trash and pile it overtop old deep coal mines. Then around 2000, the SRBC did a study on the Tioga River.

The concerned citizens became a nonprofit in 2001. And with SRBC’s study sought out and managed grants to improve the watershed.

“We were turned down so many times, we did so many grant applications … but we get just enough to keep us going,” said Joyce Andrews. “We met a lot of nice people too and the different agencies, that you know, really, they taught us a lot because we didn’t know anything about it.”

The group raised awareness about the pollution of the river, did stream cleanups and programs in the local schools and partnered with area organizations to raise money for their efforts.

But they weren’t able to secure the type of big funding needed to make lasting changes to the river and its tributaries, many of which act as streams for the mine pools.

“We kind of felt at that point, we were almost defeated,” said Charlie Andrews. 

Then Southwestern Energy started fracking for natural gas in the area.

“They had a program where for every gallon of water they used in fracking, they would treat a gallon of water,” he said.

The energy company funded two passive treatment systems near Fall Brook, one of river’s tributaries and the first significant source of mine drainage pollution to the Tioga River, according to SRBC.

The polluted water runs over limestone beds. Once it’s treated it’s put back into the streams. 

A large treatment pond.

Limestone beds help clean up acid mine drainage at Fall Brook. Photo: Kat Bolus / WVIA News

Lasting Impact

Abandoned mine drainage is a leading source of stream impairment in Pennsylvania with more than 5,500 miles of waterways affected statewide, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The 2021 federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included $11.2 billion for the national abandoned mineland programs. Pennsylvania will receive funding over 15 years. The projects must have a focus on abandoned mine land and acid mine drainage.

The most recent funds were awarded in January. SBRC got the most of any state organization to build the active treatment plant. It will work in unison with the current facilities.

“This plant is going to run over 11 miles of pipe to collect those five discharges and take them to a central plant,” said Andrew King, SRBC’s Mine Drainage Program Coordinator. “It’s basically going to look like a … wastewater treatment plant. But instead of treating sewage, it’ll treat the mind drainage.”

It will use calcium hydroxide to raise the pH of the water. 

“That causes the iron and aluminum to precipitate out to form a solid fallout,” said King. 

Charlie Andrews said testing showed that some of the old mines were dry.

“So they’re going to pump that slurry-type stuff into the old mines,” he said. 

The plant can treat 15 million gallons of water a day. But typically, around 5 million gallons will run through it, said King.

“The plant is going to be removing 180 tons a year of aluminum, 130 tons a year of iron and 2,000 tons of acidity,” he said. “It should be online in 2026.”

The project comes as a relief to not only the Andrews but others in the community.

Shane Nickerson grew up in Blossburg. He was mayor of the town and is now a Tioga County Commissioner. He thinks Island Park is the best park in the county.

“But to get there you walk over a walking bridge, over the river, I walked over that, I don’t know thousands of times as a kid, rode my bicycle over it, and you see this orange river,” he said. “You know when you play in the river as a kid you have to wear your old shoes cause your going to be orange.”

He said it takes people like Joyce and Charlie to say: “Wait a minute, this is unacceptable. Why is everyone accepting this?”

“It’s grown into this incredible thing for Blossburg,” Nickerson said. “It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened in the last, I don’t know in a couple hundred years.”

The Andrews get a lot of credit for keeping the group alive.

“We’ve been in our local market here where people we’d have never met will recognize us and just come over and say ‘thank you for the work that the organization is doing’,” said Joyce Andrews.

But they say it’s really a community effort.

“When we first started on this we would have sent, I don’t know how many letters to the different municipalities along the river, to just to remind them that when they were approving development to keep in mind that they wanted to keep river access,” she said. “Because at some point, we would have fishing back in the river and they never really believed us. Now, maybe they will.”

WVIA News reporter Haley O’Brien contributed to this report.