JEFF KNAPP: Water quality improving due to clean up
December 24, 2013 10:39 AM

Extensive treatment and clean-up efforts within an Abandoned Mine Drain- age-impacted watershed in Indiana, Jefferson and Clearfield counties has led to a dramatic improvement in water quality as well as restored fisheries.

Bear Run drains a nearly 20-square mile area, its headwaters rising near the Indiana County hamlet of Hillman. It joins the West Branch of the Susquehanna River at McGees Mills in Clearfield County. Mining practices dating as far back as the 1880s resulted in significant impairment, particularly in the stream’s South Branch. Prior to restoration efforts Bear Run was considered one of the most damaging AMD tributaries to the upper West Branch.

The earth’s disruption from non-modern mining practices — which occurred prior to current regulations — often resulted in the introduction of heavy metals into the surrounding watershed, as well as a decrease in alkalinity and an increase in acidity.

Streams severely impacted are often biologically dead, lacking in life forms such as aquatic insects and fish.

In addition to poor water chemistry, Bear Run was heavily loaded with iron, manganese and aluminum. Partners and funding sources in the effort include the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, the Indiana County Conservation District, the Evergreen Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Federal Office of Surface Mining.

In 2006, the ICCD completed its Bear Run Restoration Plan, which revealed 27 mine drainage discharges, eight of which were contributing nearly three-quarters of the AMD loading into the stream. In some cases discharges flowed directly into Bear Run, and in others, the pollutants entered feeder waters.

Subsequent to the initial plan, eight phases have been completed. In that all eight projects came in under budget, a ninth phase has been added.

Clean-up work included a blend of mine soil removal, passive treatment system technology, and Swedish-Bucket Lime Dosing Silos.

Bear Run’s Phase 1, completed in 2007, is an example of passive treatment. Here, an aerobic pond and passive wetlands treat a mine discharge previously laden with metals. Following treatment, there has been a 91 percent reduction in iron discharge and a 167 percent increase in alkalinity levels. Acidity has also been reduced.

One the larger projects was Phase 2, which in addition to discharge treatment also included the restoration of 1,000 feet of streambed and the removal of 15,000 tons of mine refuse. The work resulted in a 93 percent decrease in iron discharge and an improvement in water chemistry.

Swedish Bucket Lime Dosers were incorporated into two of the project’s phases. Powered by water flow — and having only three moving parts — the doser introduces metered amounts of lime to the discharge, helping to neutralize acidity. While silos must be refilled on a regular basis, this approach is significantly less expensive than other forms of active treatment.

Water chemistry analysis aside, an important measurement of such work is the return of fish life. Listed as a cold water fishery by the state, Bear Run has the potential to host wild trout populations. The cleanup of certain feeder streams — which continued to support native brook trout fisheries upstream of AMD sources — restored a physical connection with Bear Run. Also, the North Branch of Bear Run was minimally impacted by AMD and serves as another source from which Bear Run can be naturally restocked.

Bear Run’s fish populations have been assessed yearly since 2008. According to SRBC Mine Drainage Coordinator Tom Clark, in 2008, no fish were captured in five of the eight sampling stations, and no native brook trout were collected. By 2012, every station produced fish, with native brook trout or wild brown trout present at three of them.

The 2008 sampling produced a total of 16 fish of four species. By 2012, 129 total fish representing 18 species were captured at the same eight stations.

Clark’s crew returned to Bear Run for its annual census in November. High flows were present, following a period of wet weather.

“The 2013 survey was comparable to the 2012 —which was the best we have seen — in terms of species but not individuals,” Clark said. “We believe the time of year and higher-than-normal flows decreased out catch.”

The rebirth of Bear Run bodes well for the future of not only that stream, but the upper West Branch as well.

“Upstream of Curwensville Reservoir, the two largest mine drainage impacts to the West Branch were the headwater discharges upstream of Northern Cambria and also Bear Run,” Clark explained. “PA DEP is now treating the Lancashire No. 15 discharge via its new active treatment plant near the town of Watkins. PA DEP is also looking into conveying several other discharges to the same plant since there is still treatment capacity. With those headwaters discharges treated, and Bear Run restored, there should be very little in terms of mine drainage impact from the headwaters down to the confluence of Anderson Creek, which should, in my opinion, by the next watershed restoration focus. Both of these projects are returning fish back to the West Branch, including pockets of wild brown trout reproduction, particularly near the confluence of cold water tributaries.”

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