Sunday, November 1, 2009

REPORTER BLOG: Abandoned Mine Safety Concerns in Athens County

Katie Boyer

I had the opportunity to attend an open forum at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to listen in on what is being done in Athens County to reclaim old coal mine land. With the Appalachian Regional Commission holding its new energy conference in town, I thought the discussion would be about how to clean up the mines to help the area go green. However, that was not case. This meeting was more than just closing a mine for the green initiative, it was about keeping the people in Athens County safe.

The first speaker showed the audience several videos and a map of Ohio, with the biggest portion of the southeastern area colored in pink and red. He told us that the colored area showed the counties in Ohio having problems with abandoned mine land. When I read over the meeting agenda, I assumed that abandoned mine land was referring to some of the mines in the area that have been closed for decades. Again, I discovered there was much more to the problem.

What is AML?
Abandoned mine land has been a longstanding problem in Ohio, especially in the 28-county Southeast Ohio region. Abandoned mine lands are those lands, waters, and surrounding watershed areas that have been contaminated or scarred by closed coal, ore and mineral mining operations.

After listening to the representatives from different areas in Appalachia, I realized that the safety of the people is the top priority of both the state and federal levels of the AML program. The program, at both levels, provides funding to help complete reclamation projects throughout the state.

At the meeting, most projects were near very high traffic areas or residential homes, especially those homes with children. It was obvious that safety concerns were at the top of the list, and a few of those concerns were addressed at the meeting. However, I wanted to get more information to make people aware of what safety issues are at stake, and what this program is trying to accomplish for Athens County.

Abandoned mine lands (AMLs) present serious threats to people's health and the environment. Addressing the problem of AML impacts is becoming more important because of the risks of accidents and injuries. There are as many as 500,000 abandoned mines in our nation.

AML story that aired on Athens MidDay Wednesday, October 28, 2009.

Health Concerns
There are many concerns related to health. Our nation has seen a growth in population which in turn, has created a higher demand for outdoor recreation on both public and private lands. Recreation areas, national by-ways, and campground facilities on public lands are often located in very near AML sites. The use of ATVs at AML sites brings risks of dangerous shafts and the chance of exposure to contaminants in the soil, water and air. Recreational fishing can also be a problem near AML sites. Polluted waters may contaminate already decreased fish populations.

Environmental Degradation
Typical environmental problems from AML sites include: contaminated/acidic surface and ground water and stockpiled waste rock. Surface runoff can move silt and debris down-stream, eventually leading to stream clogging. Sedimentation is caused by the blockage of the stream and can potentially cause flooding of roads and residences and pose a danger to the public.

Water Pollution
Highly acidic water that is rich in metals, known as AMD, is a very serious problem in many abandoned mines. Abandoned mines can produce AMD for more than 100 years which poses significant risks to surface water and ground water. AMD can lower the pH levels of surrounding surface water, making it corrosive and unable to support most forms of aquatic life and vegetation. People also could be affected by consuming water and fish with a high metal content.

What Is Being Done
Cleanup efforts are currently underway on the federal and state levels. Significant attention is being focused on potential future uses of the lands, as well as the economic, environmental, and social benefits that reuse can provide. The program has reclaimed almost 240,000 acres of land with hazardous coal-related problems. Safety and environmental hazards have been eliminated on almost 315,000 acres containing coal or non-coal problems. Almost 8,000 emergencies have also been addressed. The AML program is nowhere near completion, but plans to continue working hard to ensure that these areas are safe for both the people and for the environment. ODNR has also provided a Citizen's Guide with more information regarding AML in the state, and here in Athens.

No comments: