Pennsylvania non-profit restores toxic old coal mines to economic and ecological value

Earth Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the reclamation and re-utilization of former coal mining lands in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.

Coal helped build the communities of Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley, but when the mining companies had extracted all the profit they could from the public resources, it left behind denuded land and piles of toxic waste for taxpayers to clean up.

Earth Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to addressing the impacts of historical coal mining practices in northeastern Pennsylvania. Their focus is on reclamation, conservation, and economic revitalization, thus making it a true Restoration Economy organization.

In 1992, supported by Congressman Paul E. Kanjorski, leaders from area businesses, colleges, nonprofits, and communities joined together to address the lands of the Blue Coal Corporation, which had declared bankruptcy in the mid-1970s.

From the early 1800s to the 1970s, deep mining operations in search of anthracite coal were extensive. The activity, however, had long-term consequences, including remnant mine openings, subsidences, and acid mine drainage seeps. Furthermore, surface mining in the 1940s and 1950s, left gaping pits, dangerous highwalls, mountainous spoil piles, and additional mine water discharges. Abandoned processing structures also remain across the Wyoming Valley, posing safety and environmental threats.  Specific hazards that should be addressed include

  • vertical openings and portals;
  • refuse piles (a.k.a., culm);
  • hazardous equipment facilities;
  • abandoned mine drainage (AMD) outfalls;
  • abandoned strip mines;
  • subsidence-prone areas; and,
  • abandoned mining ponds.

According to Earth Conservancy’s Land Use Plan (LUP), approximately 3,000 of the 16,300 acres EC purchased from the bankruptcy estate of the Glen Alden/Blue Coal Company require reclamation.  The majority of these lands are located in areas well-suited to the responsible reuse EC strives to incorporate into its work.

Generally located to the west of Wilkes-Barre, many of these 16,000 acres situated among the small villages and boroughs have mostly been ignored, the mine-scarred land seen only as permanent eyesores and reminders of the past. Earth Conservancy, however, views them as an opportunity for growth, progress, and transformation.

After obtaining $14 million in grants and an additional $2 million in private loans, EC purchased the Blue Coal lands in 1994. After the sale was finalized, Earth Conservancy began working to return the lands to productive use.

After reclamation, the conservancy sells or donates the land in most cases. In some cases, it has retained ownership of parcels. The reclaimed land has found a variety of new purposes in its second life.

Most of it has been preserved as forest or other undeveloped land, and much of that includes trails that wind through the former coal company holdings. Other reclaimed land is now occupied by businesses, especially warehouses near the Hanover Industrial Park. Parts of it are now the places that Luzerne County residents call home. An ongoing project from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation built the South Valley Parkway on and around some of that reclaimed land.

It’s not an organization that’s 100 percent environmental or economic. There’s a balance with work that is environmental and economic and also with residential areas, parks and more. A lot of the stuff we do is what’s best for the community in a number of ways,” executive administrator Geoffrey D. Shaw said.

Now, the region is seeing benefits that took 15 or 20 years to come to fruition. Executive director Mike Dziak expects it will take about the same amount of time to reclaim and transfer the rest of the land the organization owns. “We think we’ve given something to the community in a big way,” he said.

To fulfill its mission, Earth Conservancy:

  1. Develops sustainable land-use plans;
  2. Commits to provide 10,000 acres for recreation and open space;
  3. Leads reclamation efforts of mine-scarred lands and water resources and guides their reutilization;
  4. Funds its work through the sale of Conservancy land and other resources, and through public and private sector partners;
  5. Partners with local communities to achieve our mission; and,
  6. Educates the community-at-large on environmental issues, the benefits of reclamation, and effective land-use planning.

All photos courtesy of Earth Conservancy.

See article by Bill Wellock in The Citizens Voice.

See Earth Conservancy website.

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