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The Orange Waterways of Pennsylvania

By Hannah Winn


Background: Acid Mine Drainage in Pennsylvania

Coal mining has been one of the major industries in Pennsylvania for centuries. Though coal mining began in the mid-1700s, production skyrocketed during the Industrial Revolution, fueling adjacent industries such as steel. Once this industry began to decline in the 1940s, coal use was redirected into electricity generation. Even during modern times, coal remains one of the leading fuel sources for the state. The use of coal has caused abandoned mine drainage, resulting in approximately 5,600 miles of dead waterways scatter the state. This phenomenon occurs when water encounters an active or abandoned mining operation. When dealing with abandoned mine drainage, there are three ways in which waterways can be impacted, including acid, alkaline, and metal mine drainage. When a waterway is affected by acid mine drainage, the movement of highly acidic water that is rich in heavy metal causes intense pollution. Today, though we now understand these effects, we are left with over 250,000 acres of mining land that had been left abandoned. What happened to toxic substances within the mines? They have entered our streams and continue to affect local communities. Though cleanup efforts are a huge part of restoring these waterways, policies need to be put into place and utilized to create a lasting effect.



Option 1: The Clean Water Act (CWA)

The first policy option that can provide both funding and support for acid mine drainage restoration is the Clean Water Act. Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act seeks to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters” while also achieving “fishable and swimmable water throughout the United States by utilizing technology-based and water quality based effluent standards implemented through a national pollutant discharge elimination system (NPDES) permit issued by the EPA.” It was a monumental win for the environmental community and helped to push climate issues like acid mine drainage forward. However, one challenge associated with the CWA is that it is written in very broad terms, especially when looking at the definition of “navigable waters”. It also fails to regulate “nonpoint source pollution” or pollution that does not come from a clear and specific source. Some believe that this is one of the largest drawbacks of the CWA and that it is one of the reasons 40 percent of waterways are impaired and 86 percent suffer from ecological devastation. One recommendation that would help support the CWA is increasing funding to the EPA and state environmental agencies.


Option 2: The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA)

Compared to the Clean Water Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act directly addresses issues dealing with acid mine drainage. Enacted in 1977, the SMCRA aims to regulate the environmental effects of coal mining while prohibiting the mining of coal on federal and nonfederal lands without obtaining a mining permit. Within the act, two programs were created: one for reclaiming abandoned mine lands and the other for regulating active coal mines. There are also a few sections that play an important role in waterway restoration. It allows regulatory authorities to deny mining permits unless the application shows that reclamation can be accomplished. It also minimizes disturbances to the hydrologic balance, the quality and quantity of water in surface and groundwater systems, and the reclamation process. Furthermore, the act requires operators of new underground mines to locate openings to prevent the gravity discharge of acid and iron waters from the mines.


Option 3: STREAM Act

The third policy that can help support acid mine drainage reclamation strategies is the Safeguarding Treatment for the Restoration of Ecosystems from Abandoned Mines Act (STREAM) through President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. In 2022, the Biden administration announced a $74 million deal designed to help reclaim abandoned mines. This is an important factor for the water restoration process because one method of dealing with acid mine drainage is eliminating the source of discharge. However, the bipartisan infrastructure law does not ensure that funding can be put into the set-aside accounts needed for the long-term treatment of acid mine drainage. That is why the STREAM Act must be implemented as a joining policy by both the U.S. House, which passed 391 to 9 this past summer, and Senate Funding would come from the new bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Though the CWA also provides grant funding that can be used for AMD, the STREAM Act would be specific to this environmental issue and further support long term initiatives of water restoration within Pennsylvania.


Final Recommendation:

After analyzing all three policy options and how they can assist in acid mine drainage restoration, the STREAM act, if passed in the Senate, would be the most impactful to Pennsylvania waterways. It aims to reclaim and restore mining sites, protect drinking water, and support the nation’s outdoor recreation economy. It mixes the strong elements from the CWA, such as funding opportunities, and the SMCRA, where the law is specific to acid mine drainage needs. One benefit of the STREAM Act compared to the SMCRA is that even though both allow states to set aside 30 percent of their annual AML grant for acid mine drainage initiatives, the STREAM Act, unlike the SMCRA, can take funds and put them into an account that accrues interest for acid mine drainage initiatives. The adoption of the STREAM act is a much-needed piece of legislation that is crucial to protecting the health of communities and waterways throughout both Pennsylvania and the country.


Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.


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