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Return to: AMD&ART/ T. Allan Comp



Southwestern Pennsylvania is a region of remarkable beauty and stark degradation where residents and visitors alike often miss the attractions of the region by focusing on its problems.

Abandoned mine drainage (AMD), an unwanted legacy of coal mining, contaminates the waterways of the entire Appalachian region. Seeping or surging from abandoned coal mines, AMD is the acidic minerals-laden water that coats stream beds with rusty orange sediment, desolating entire watersheds.

AMD results when groundwater dissolves minerals exposed during mining, creating an unstable aqueous solution loaded with metals such as iron, aluminum and manganese. When these discharges reach local streams, AMD smothers aquatic plant and animal life beneath a bright orange layer of mineral precipitate, resulting not only in habitat destruction, but the loss of waterways as recreational, industrial and community resources.

AMD&ART is working to destabilize the typically negative expectations of this region of Pennsylvania with large-scale, artful public places that directly address both the environmental and social consequences of AMD. We've proven that by bringing the perspectives of history to mix with the discipline of science, the healing accessibility and delight of innovative design, and the energy of community engagement, we create a productive pathway for action. A multidisciplinary approach to AMD remediation establishes new avenues for community participation and provides opportunities for innovative partnerships. Vintondale, Pennsylvania is the first site that we will complete, but work is also underway in the 34 square-mile watershed of Dark Shade Creek, in Somerset County. Both projects lay the foundation for an entire Appalachian initiative addressing the economic, social and environmental problems AMD poses for eastern coal country.

Our first site in the Borough of Vintondale, Pennsylvania, is a small coal patch town in Cambria County, some 15 miles northeast of Johnstown, nestled deep in the Blacklick Creek Valley. Vintondale is a community whose history is defined by underground mining and vast surface works, yet the tangible reminders of this proud past are beginning to fade away. In the 1960s, the last deep mine in Vintondale closed forever. As the procession of miners across the footbridge of the coal complex ceased, so did the sounds of the tipple, the smoke from the railroad, and the nighttime glow of the coke ovens.

AMD&ART's pilot site in Vintondale offers a manageable AMD discharge central to the community, with high visibility due to the popular trail that borders the park. The Ghost Town Trail, a Rails-to-Trails hiking and biking trail, follows the path of the former rail bed from Dilltown to Nanty Glo. Vintondale lies about halfway in between, and because of the trail, about 75,000 people pass by the treatment site each year.

AMD&ART is passively treating the discharge from Mine #3 that flows unceasingly. Rusty, mineral-laden water is introduced into the ecosystem at a rate of 80-200 gallons per minute, but by comparison to others throughout the region, the discharge is small and manageable.

The AMD&ART Vintondale site is situated on thirty-five acres of reclaimed mine land next to the South Branch of Blacklick Creek. On this site, a washery, power plant, tipple, and a battery of 152 coke ovens once stood. The Ebensburg and Blacklick Railroad, a branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad, bordered the site. Today, the once bustling mining center is silent, covered with boney, the past rendered invisible. The riverbed is blanketed with orange sediment from abandoned mine drainage and the streets are lined with dilapidated houses.

Vintondale's population of 582 is a quarter of what it was at the height of the mining industry, and 61.9% of families with children live in poverty. The per capita income is $10,957, and only 7.7 % of the population over 25 has a college degree. What statistics cannot show is that hope is still very much alive in Vintondale, and residents of the Blacklick Creek Watershed are working to clean their waterways and revitalize their communities.

Over 15% of the community of Vintondale has given valuable input to the design of the park, especially regarding recreational areas adjacent to the treatment system. There will be a baseball field, soccer field, volleyball court, BMX bike jumping area, hiking trail and horseshoe pits. There will be picnic areas for families and play areas for small children.

The ideas contributed by the residents of Vintondale to the professional design team were distilled into a comprehensive plan. Three main areas exist: a passive AMD treatment area surrounded by a native Litmus Garden, the Emergent History Wetlands, and an active recreation area.

Community support has been essential to the success of AMD&ART in Vintondale. People of all ages have worked to move the Vintondale project forward, from school kids to seniors, and they are building more than just a park; they are building connections between generations that will make their community more cohesive and resilient. In 1998, the Volunteer Fire Department worked with the AMD&ART staff to build ten picnic tables for a park that was not even built yet. More recently, volunteers worked together to build planter boxes that will enhance the beauty of the park.

After several years of intense community face-time, planning and design work, AMD&ART broke ground in Vintondale on August 14, 2000 with an actual backhoe! One hundred and fifty people were in attendance, everyone from local residents to government officials and well-known artists.

During the 1980s, scientists found that wetlands improved the quality of AMD polluted water. Subsequently, many natural remediation techniques have been developed and paired with wetlands. These passive treatment systems are cost efficient, low-maintenance alternatives to active treatment in which AMD is chemically treated.

The Vintondale treatment system consists of a series of six ponds, excavated during the fall of 2000. The first pond is lined with limestone, which will soon be covered with bright orange sediment. This establishes a visual starting point, showing the initial condition of the water that will pass through the treatment system. The water will change colors as it flows through each pond, dropping out metals and becoming more alkaline. Immediately adjacent to the ponds, volunteers planted a Litmus Garden in April 2001. During the autumn months, the leaves will turn bright oranges and reds at the beginning of the treatment system, grading through yellows to blue-greens at the end.

The typical passive treatment system consists of a series of settling ponds filled with native plants and limestone, where the pH of the polluted water is brought to a neutral level. As the water flows through the ponds, metals drop out and the water is cleansed. Most passive treatment systems are fenced off, surrounded by trees, hidden from the public. It's a characteristic reaction to a problem that no one wants to own up to. The end result is that most people don't know that these treatment systems exist. A person is standing in the second pond to display the large scale of this landscape.

Once the cleansed water exits the treatment system, it will enter an expanse of wetlands. Where boney now barely supports scrubby grasses and stunted trees, a new marsh environment will soon attract a variety of birds and wildlife. Constructed wetlands will provide an opportunity for both natural and historical interpretation. In these "history wetlands," red maples will outline the foundations where coal company buildings once stood. At the old mine portal, a mosaic will show a map of the site at the height of the mining era. Here, history that had been erased will be made visible through landscape art and historical interpretation.

The South Branch of Blacklick Creek Restoration Plan states, "The AMD&ART project at Vintondale and the Webster Discharge Project at Nanty Glo [just upstream from Vintondale] will address the most significant discharges on the watershed, other than those being addressed by the Revloc reprocessing operations. The completion of these two already planned projects, along with the completion of the remining efforts, will restore much of the aquatic life to the stream and will produce benefits that reach far downstream of the South Branch."

We can best bring attention to the problem of abandoned mine drainage by building treatment systems that are integrated into artful, educational, public places. In Vintondale, we are working to see just how far we can take this project and see what we can do to create landscape art that actually heals environmental devastation. In Dark Shade Creek, we are going back to the beginning, and building a base for community revitalization, watershed restoration and economic development by using a process where the art is collaboration. The Dark Shade Creek Watershed encompasses 34 square miles, and over 21 AMD discharges. The community base is critical to the AMD&ART process.

© 2010