More than 100 years ago, many Frostburg area coal miners dug deep into their pockets to donate what they could to establish a state teachers college that eventually evolved into Frostburg State University. By doing so, they left a legacy of commitment to quality education for their children and an enhanced quality of life for area residents.
Now, thanks to a grant from the state, FSU is helping to clean up the environmental legacy of coal mining, especially the acid mine drainage that has contaminated area waterways. The Maryland Department of the Environment's Bureau of Mines recently awarded $40,000 to the FSU Department of Geography to support the Geospatial Research Group (GRG) of students and professional staff. The GRG is responsible for data collection, input and analysis to address acid mine drainage problems in Western Maryland. These funds represent a portion of about $160,000 allocated for FSU's participation in a collaborative effort between FSU and state agencies, now in its third year.
One promising initiative supported by the $160,000 is the Power Plant Research Program (PPRP), a part of Maryland's Department of Natural Resources Power Plant Assessment effort. With participation from coal mining companies and electric utilities, the PPRP is working to find an environmentally sound alternative to dumping the coal combustion byproducts (CCBs) from power plants into landfills and to demonstrate the benefits of applying these alkaline CCBs to abate acid mine drainage.
Dr. Craig Caupp of FSU's Geography Department works as a partner with the PPRP. His responsibilities include administering the grant and supervising the technical services and personnel it supports.
In return, the Geography Department benefits. "Our department's aim is to provide experience to our students," Caupp says. Their contribution to the PPRP includes field data collection, data integration and analysis, GIS development, remote sensing interpretation and digital imagery development and modeling. Students use FSU's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Lab to apply what they learn in classes to this "real project." They have been especially busy lately, he says, working to fulfill requests for posters and graphs.
Caupp is especially pleased with the future prospects for the geography students. "This [solution] gives the university long-term involvement. We will need to monitor the entire process."
The GIS Lab is also a direct beneficiary of the PPRP. According to Caupp, two previous grants "resurrected" the lab and allowed the geography department to hire several of its graduates and students.
Areas targeted for remediation efforts have included the Georges Creek, Casselman, Cherry Creek and Kempton Mine areas of Allegany and Garrett Counties. Contaminated water by the millions of gallons with a pH of less than 3.5, similar to that of vinegar, travels along these creeks. Some finds its way into the North Branch of the Potomac River and eventually adds to the pollutants fouling the Chesapeake Bay. Acid mine drainage from the Casselman drains into the Youghiogheny River, then the Ohio River and onward into the mighty Mississippi. Closer to home, waterways affected include Deep Creek Lake, Maryland's largest freshwater lake and home to a thriving recreational scene and West Virginia's Jennings Randolph Lake, which serves as the backup water supply for the nation's capital.
One culprit that has served as a model for the PPRP is the Kempton Mine Complex. Before remediation, this area loaded from 900 to 26,000 pounds of acid into Laurel Run that proved lethal to wetland plants and native aquatic life downstream, resulting in a dead and fish-free North Branch. Now the situation is much improved, thanks to a test project set up by the Bureau of Mines that involves the use of several "dosers," towers that feed limestone into the water.
"This project has shown that alleviation efforts can work," Caupp says but adds, "It's like a band-aid, not a full, long-term solution." The dosers are costly and require extensive maintenance.
But what has been dubbed the "days of the Pharoahs" solution may offer a better option to curtail acid mine drainage. The term arises from the use of mixture of masonry limestone and volcanic ash in ancient restoration projects that has inspired the substitution of fly ash from area coal-burning power plants for the volcanic variety. When mixed with water, this combination forms a grout that can be pumped into an abandoned mine shaft, where it coats the floor and hardens to seal leaks. Its alkalinity neutralizes the acid that results when oxygen molecules in water contact the sulfur and bacteria in the coal and pyrite surrounding it.
"The goal is to reduce the formation of acid," Caupp says.
This potential solution and Frostburg State's role in its implementation showed enough promise to be featured in an episode of "Maryland State of Mind" highlighting the Kempton Project that aired on Maryland Public Television this past winter. A test project involving grout injection showed positive results in the Winding Ridge mine near Friendsville. Later this spring, Caupp plans to have an updated Web site available to describe the Kempton Mine Restoration Project's progress.
With such creative collaborations as the PPRP, the state of Maryland, power plants, coal mining companies and Frostburg State University are working to leave a legacy of commitment to improving the environment of the region they serve. Eventually acid mine drainage could become a part of history, much like the abandoned mines from which it seeped.
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