Healing Old Wounds

by Tom Damm

The day’s light was fading along with our chances of spotting a bull elk when out of the tall grass rose a pair of majestic antlers.  We quietly got out of our small caravan of cars, pointing and speaking in hushed tones.  The animal gave us a long, disinterested look and then ambled back down the hill.

Bull elk emerging from high grass

Bull elk appears for tour group

We had seen a scattering of elk cows and calves over the past half hour.  But the brief encounter with the antlered male was the perfect cap to a full day of touring old surface mines being restored in western Pennsylvania, including this popular state game land in Benezette Township known for its resurgent elk population.

Vast acres of the land before us had been scarred and abandoned by mining operators prior to a 1977 federal law requiring environmental remediation of active sites.  Now, after a series of re-mining and reclamation projects, our view was a sweeping vista of hilly forest and grasslands that serve as an attractive habitat for an elk herd 1,000 strong.

For our team of mostly federal and state regulators, the game land in Elk County was the last stop on Day 2 of a nearly week-long fact-finding tour arranged by EPA as part of a multi-agency effort to consider next steps for mine reclamation activity, including potential funding and other incentives.

Earlier in the day, Mike Smith, district mining manager for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, led us on an often bumpy, dusty off-road tour of mining sites on either side of Route 80 between Snow Shoe and DuBois that similarly were abandoned and are now in various stages of re-mining and recovery.

In the reclamation process, operators receive permits to mine portions of the old sites that still have viable coal reserves in exchange for strategic and insured work that restores the full sites with trees and grasses and in many cases improves the quality of water impaired by acid mine drainage.

Most of the sites we saw were relatively small in size – not the type generally supported by a pool of money financed by industry and government to address mine-related safety and economic issues.

Two of the veteran operators said that with their thin, if not break-even profit margin this will be their last hurrah.  Said one, whose work included the elk-rich game lands, “When you look at this project and the good that it’s done, I don’t know who’s going to do this when we’re gone.”

But for this day, with roaming elk, a once-acidic stream segment stocked with trout, a former “moonscape” covered with grass, and even some head-bobbing wild turkeys, it was a time to appreciate the progress at hand.


About the Author: Tom Damm has been with EPA since 2002 and now serves as communications coordinator for the region’s Water Protection Division.

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