Acid mine drainage is the most widespread water pollution problem in Pennsylvania. When water wells up inside abandoned coalmines, it leaches the iron compound ‘pyrite’ from the rock to form an acidic, sulfuric brine — called “yellowboy” for its color. As the pressure builds in the empty, underground mines, it often begins to seep out, the risk of a blowout increases, and, at times, the yellowboy could end up flowing into the nearest stream and killing wildlife.
Coal mining was once Pennsylvania’s most robust industry. Now, there are more than 5,000 forsaken mines littered across the state. The acidic water seeping out of them is tainting more than 3,000 miles of Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams.
As the State Senator for Fayette and Somerset Counties, Richard Kasunic has spent decades dealing with the orange and yellow streams that signify acid mine drainage.
“Those of us who live in the coal region have been saddled with the sins of the past, in terms of the old abandoned coal mines, and the water that is building up inside those mines and, in many cases, blowing out and polluting our streams and our rivers,” said Kasunic. “We’ve lived with that for probably the last hundred years.”
It's a monstrous pollution problem. The state government has estimated that it would take $15 billion and fifty years of dedicated effort to remediate all of the abandoned mines in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania's Old Energy Industry Meets Its Successor
Senator Kasunic has proposed legislation that would do something about acid mine drainage – that is, put it to use. Senate Bill 411 would allow Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers to pump the acidic water out of the old coalmines to use for hydraulic fracturing.
Gas companies might have to pre-treat the mine water to get the right chemical makeup needed to bore through layers of rock. Then, Kasunic said, just like any other drilling wastewater, drillers would be required to gather up and clean the fluid afterward, too.
“Obviously, they would be responsible for the cleaning of this water and bringing it to — when they are releasing it back into the streams and rivers – to the drinking water standards that [Department of Environmental Protection] regulations require,” said Kasunic. “It’s a win-win situation for all of us.”
The attractive part of this deal for Marcellus Shale drillers is that it provides an alternative source of water. Fracking requires millions of gallons a day, and gas companies might have to ship water over long distances from reservoirs and rivers to well sites. But state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday says the option to take water from abandoned coalmines could make things cheaper and easier.
“If you look at a map of where mining took place and where drilling is taking place now, there’s a lot of correlation, particularly in the southwest,” said Sunday. “So in some cases, the drillers may be drilling gas wells near where an abandoned mine discharge is occurring, and in that case, it might make sense to just install a pipeline.”
For the driller, it all comes down to cost.
“If your well pad is in very close proximity to the source of the mine water, that would be most likely the least expensive way to transport the water, especially if your alternate source of water is some distance away,” said Andrew Paterson, Vice President of Technical and Regulatory Affairs for the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
Paterson said the water would also have to be reasonably easy to convert into fracking fluid.
Liability Questions Arise
There’s no law stopping Marcellus Shale drillers from using acid mine drainage for fracking now. In fact, the DEP issued a white paper this January encouraging gas companies to use water from old mines. But Paterson says drillers are wary because they don’t want to be held liable for the water in the mine after they’re done fracking.
“It’s the concept that if you touch it, you own it,” said Paterson. “If people were to use water for oil and gas purposes, they don’t want to be in a situation where suddenly they own the old abandoned mine and they need to remediate that water in perpetuity.”
Senate Bill 411 clears up the issue of liability at the state level by holding drillers free of the responsibility of perpetual treatment. But Paterson said even if the bill is passed into state law, it doesn’t apply to potential lawsuits in federal court.
“There still would be the federal issue, and I think people would be hoping that the federal regulators would be satisfied if the state regulators are satisfied,” said Paterson.
'Not a Permanent Solution'
Casting a shadow on the entire proposal is the possibility of water pollution from Marcellus Shale drilling itself. Environmental groups argue fracking fluid can flow back out of the well and escape untreated into ground and surface water.
Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania Director for Clean Water Action, said he’s worried that using acid mine drainage for fracking could create more problems than it solves.
“By starting out with acid mine drainage, you’re adding those pollutants into the mix, which additionally become a problem with what happens with the wastewater afterwards," said Arnowitt. "So, in some ways, you’re compounding the problems from two industries, the coal industry and the gas industry, into one process.”
In any case, after the water has been used and the gas wells have been drilled, the state’s 5,000 empty coalmines will remain, and the threat of acid mine drainage will live on.