Limestone Cowboy

IN NORTHEASTERN PENNSYLVANIA, more than a century of intense mineral extraction has left behind well over 100,000 acres of historic, mostly abandoned mine lands. Robert Hughes believes there was a kind of destiny in the fact that he was born in the heart of this country, on the day of the 1972 hurricane that flooded the mines and largely ended coal operations here. As an environmental manager, he has taken on the enormous post-mining legacy in the state, where hundreds of mines continue to hemorrhage metal-laden water into surrounding water tables and four thousand miles of streams and rivers. With the small staff of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR), he now coordinates the efforts of watershed councils, county conservation districts, the mining industry, regional nonprofits, municipalities, and state and federal agencies to reclaim abandoned mine lands, clean watersheds, and provide GIS mapping support to local governments. Orion spoke to Robert from the group’s office in Shavertown.

So you grew up with the mines?

ROBERT HUGHES: Yeah, those coal banks and mine fires and ore streams that smelled like raw sewers were my backyard. I explored it all.

How many mines are still operating?

There are about sixty operators in six counties in northeastern Pennsylvania still actively mining. They’re all held to today’s standards for reclamation.

But you’re concerned with abandoned mines.

Our coalition’s mission is to restore lands that were impacted prior to the federal surface mine law of ’77, which provided for reclamation. We gain easements and access, work with landowners, set up agreements to build treatment solutions to take care of some of the mine discharges, or just do beautification projects.

What’s the problem with mine discharge?

Lots of these discharges are loaded with iron, and the streams they join are totally coated with this orange or red material. But some streams contain other dissolved metals, like manganese or aluminum, that are colorless at low pH levels. Some discharges are acidic, as low as a pH of 4.0, while others are alkaline.

What are the impacts on people?

In the rural part of the coalfields, people use well water, which can be contaminated with AMD, abandoned mine drainage. There are studies underway looking at epidemiological data and case histories of folks in the area who have Alzheimer’s, mental illnesses, and bipolar conditions to see if there’s any correlation.

How does AMD affect animal life?

In the impacted streams, macroinvertebrates and fish don’t spawn, and you don’t see many animals coming up to drink. There are still some deer and beaver, the occasional iron-coated turtle, and yellow-bellied ducks, as we like to call them. They are mostly mallards that live in our wetland treatment systems and oxidizing ponds. The yellow or orange water dyes their bellies and, if you see them in flight, you can usually tell what pond they came from.

So the water is being treated?

Yes. In the state there are around 280 treatment systems on streams. Our organization has installed upwards of 60 systems since 1996. To get rid of iron, we like to put in aerobic wetlands to passively drop the iron out. In the case of manganese or aluminum, the metals can’t be forced out until the water reaches a certain pH. That’s where we use treatment technologies that utilize limestone, flushing mechanisms, and “polishing ponds” that allow the pH to be increased so that the metals drop out. Each impacted stream requires a different treatment response, but the systems do a good job of removing the metals before the water is discharged back into the stream.

With what results?

Those streams are recovering: the insect life is coming back, the fish are coming out of the tributaries to spawn there once again.

Sounds simple.

Yes, but not low maintenance because you have to go out and continually harvest the metals building up in those ponds. We try to get community groups to take ownership of some of the ponds, to keep them clean.

The metals we harvest have their uses, but until we can get some private companies to buy this product to dry and sell or melt into new aluminum or iron, we’ll make our own markets. We’re currently working with companies to develop paint lines using the iron oxide as a pigment.

So iron oxide is profitable?

Yeah. The money goes back into the operation and maintenance of the treatment systems. It helps keep them going.

Can you use iron oxide for other things?

We created our own tinted wood-stains and polyurethanes. In the art supplies realm, it can be used as a pigment in pastels, oils, acrylics, chalk, and for dying fabric. I think in the last five years we must have tie-dyed over five thousand t-shirts with kids, as part of watershed tours that we do with school groups. We tell them they’re playing a role in the recycling and recovery of the metals they just saw on the hike. It’s an opportunity to teach them EPCAMR’s Eight Rs: restore, recover, recycle, reclaim, revitalize, redevelop, remediate, respect.

You created a coloring book, right?

For the young kids. My co-worker Mike Hewitt and I wrote it, and we star in it as superheroes. His nickname is Swampy and he rides around shooting cattails into swamps to remediate sites. As the Limestone Cowboy, I ride around the coal region with my lasso, bringing in grant money and dropping limestone all over the place. You can access the book from our website.

You also use art to educate the general public about restoration efforts.

We teamed up with a good friend of mine who is an internationally known watercolor artist, and we pulled in members of the Wyoming Valley Art League in the Scranton area. They created art to exhibit in a show called Anthrascapes at a gallery in Wilkes-Barre. We took artists out to different sites, and they did sketches and paintings. And they brought back zip-lock bags of our iron oxide and mixed it in with whatever medium they work in.

We ended up with at least forty-some artists and eighty-some pieces of work. The show got a lot of foot traffic and great coverage in the newspapers.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Fighting the mentality in this region that keeps people from expecting too much. In the post-mining times here, there’s a belief that we’ve been dumped on, raped, and robbed. It causes a kind of hopelessness that’s ingrained into the minds of children by their parents, who probably learned it from their own parents. What we’re trying to say is that everyone has skill sets that can be assets to the community, and that they need to be willing to share, to participate, and think outside the box. It’s about not turning toward the outside for help but looking to each other. We hope that all of the volunteers who show up to help with reclamation, trash removal, or beautification projects end up feeling better about living here.

Do you have advice for others working against similar odds?

Just step outside the house and pull the kids away from the Playstation. Get them back into nature, hiking and identifying trees and things like that. That’s what has always kept me grounded. A lot of people out there are willing to engage; you just need to find out what their interests are and tap them. And that’s what we do best.

– Erik Hoffner, Orion Grassroots Network Coordinator