Mine reclamation, watershed rehabilitation projects come to fruition

Local, county and state officials recently gathered at the Gilbert Farm Homestead in Benezette, Elk County for the dedication of State Game Lands 311. The mine reclamation project restored over 48 acres in the Dents Run Watershed, which encompasses just over 25 square miles in Benezette Township.The project entailed the cooperation of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (BAMR), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC).“To sum it all up, what made this project possible was the cooperation of the public, specifically the property owners and all the organizations,” said Dennis Dusza, PGC North Regional Director.In June, DEP and BAMR completed the project, which included alkaline addition and the elimination of 5,600 linear feet of dangerous highwall. In addition, a lime silo was installed at the site in lieu of constructing a passive treatment system. The Bennett Branch Watershed Association has developed a $600,000 trust fund to ensure the continued operation of the lime dosing silos for the future.The project began in 1996, when BAMR completed a preliminary evaluation of work needed to restore the watershed. To date the combined project cost is $11,687,630. BAMR began to look for other partners to assist in the project, as it did not have the funds required for completion. Funding in the amount of $1,788,140, was eventually secured from the USACOE’s Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration Program, or Section 206. Additional funding included $5,632,553 from the Surface Control and Reclamation Act Title IV funds, which address problems associated with poor coal mining practices prior to 1977. PA Growing Greener contributed $1,632,077 and $2,634,860 from industry matches through reclamation and limestone mining.“I never thought I’d see this happen,” said Benezette Township Supervisor Jim McClusky.John Dzemyan, land manager of Elk and McKean counties, oversaw the project.The upper portions of Dents Run are considered to be a Class A wild trout stream by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The watershed is centrally located in the state’s wild elk herd habitat and flows primarily through state-owned lands. The lower 4.5-mile portion of Dents Run has been severely degraded due to acid discharges from surface and underground mines on the Lower Kittanning and Clarion Coal seams.Porcupine Run, a sub-drainage basin where unreclaimed mine sites are located, is where 90 percent of the pollution to Dents Run stems from. This area is also responsible for 40 percent of the pollution to the Bennetts Branch watershed’s Sinnemahoning Creek. Biological surveys conducted at the beginning of the project indicated almost no aquatic life present in the watershed. Currently the water quality has been restored, with many signs of the return of aquatic life. Among the speakers at the event were Jeanne Wambaugh, district forester for Elk State Forest, Javed Mirza, district mining engineer for DEP’s Knox office, Eric Cavazza, environmental project manager for DEP’s BAMR Ebensburg office, Benezette Township Supervisors, Fritz Lecker, representative from State Rep. Matt Gabler’s office, Bill Capouillex, director of Bureau of Wildlife Habitat Management and Carl Roe, executive director of the state Game Commission.In 1997, it was discovered that a local source of limestone, needed for the project, existed within the watershed in an unmined area. Organizers worked with the local P&N Coal Company as part of an exploratory drilling project, which resulted in the discovery of a reserve of 1.5 million tons of high-quality limestone and the removal of 400,000 tons of coal. The USACOE began evaluating the project in 1998 and completed a feasibility study in 2001. A groundbreaking was held in 2002 for the project, and mining for limestone began later that year, as did the construction of a passive acid mine drainage treatment system.Over the next several years, the USACOE concentrated on the treatment projects while BAMR worked on surface mine reclamation and the placement of the lime silos. BAMR received a boost in funding and expanded the project to include additional land.Within seven years, from 2003 to 2010, approximately 274 acres of abandoned strip mine were reclaimed within the watershed. Much of this took place on State Forest and State Game lands, and included re-vegetation plans to create additional range area for the growing elk herd. Two lime silos were installed, along with four passive treatment systems during that time.In addition, Domtar donated mill sludge to the project, which was used in abandoned mine sites and wildlife habitat areas. Domtar has been involved with the project since 1996.“Our sludge is never sent to a landfill; we always put it to use,” said Andy Redmond of Domtar. “It gives you a lot of personal satisfaction to belong to such efforts.”State Game Lands 311 was the first land acquisition of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation east of the Mississippi since 1991.