This summer, TU hosted the Eastern Abandoned Mine Program’s inaugural River Researchers Teen Camp. Six teens from Pennsylvania and Maryland spent the better part of a week along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River to explore coal country and learn about eastern brook trout.
The teens, ranging in age from 15 to 17, learned how historic coal mining fueled our nation through the industrial revolution and both world wars and how it also left behind a legacy of water pollution from abandoned mine drainage (AMD). This AMD contains high levels of acidity and toxic heavy metals that make it next to impossible for fish and other aquatic life to survive. In Pennsylvania alone, 5,500 miles of stream are impaired by mine drainage. The West Branch Susquehanna River watershed contains approximately 20% of the polluted streams in Pennsylvania, or 1,200 miles, making it the perfect location for students to learn about coal mine drainage pollution, how it is formed, its effects on trout and other aquatic life and what is being done to clean it up.
The campers visited an underground coal mine from the same era as those that now cause the majority of Pennsylvania’s AMD. During the tour, students learned how the miners used to take a caged canary into the mine to warn them of the build-up of deadly gases such as methane and “black damp”. Canaries are very sensitive to these gases and would begin to act strangely or even die when gases began to rise to dangerous levels. This led to a discussion of how trout are like the canaries in the coal mines for our waterways. As human impacts begin to reach unsustainable levels, trout and other coldwater species are often the first to show signs of distress. Reduced populations of trout are our warning that something is amiss in our environment and we should take action to figure out the problem and remedy it before permanent damage is done.
We visited local streams, collecting water samples and aquatic insects, performing habitat surveys and learning about many other scientific techniques that are used to study the effects of mine drainage on local waterways. They then used the data they collected to assess the health of their study streams and make recommendations of how to improve and protect them. They also visited several types of mine drainage treatment systems that clean polluted water before releasing it back into the streams and learned how trout and other aquatic life are beginning to recover in these once polluted watersheds.
It was a good week--one we won't soon forget.
--Rachel Kester, Project Coordinator, Eastern Abandoned Mine Program