PA’s Mining Legacy and AML
Coal mining began in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s to support the colonial iron industry. By the 1800s, Pennsylvania coal was fueling the industrial growth of the entire country and was the primary fuel source for western Pennsylvania’s growing steel industry. Anthracite and bituminous coal production peaked in 1918 with a combined production of 276 million tons. Coal’s importance continued well into the twentieth century as it provided the energy to fight both World Wars. When the steel industry declined in the late-1940s, coal use was redirected into electricity generation. Today, coal supplies the majority of fuel for electric power generation in Pennsylvania and the nation.
For the first 200 years, coal was mined with little thought of environmental consequences and without formal regulation. When all available coal was extracted from a mine site, operators would move to another area and leave the original mine abandoned, failing to return the earth to its previous condition. Over 15 billion tons of coal were removed from Pennsylvania’s ground and 250,000 acres of mine lands were left abandoned.
Pennsylvania’s abandoned mine lands (AML) memorialize a period of great economic and industrial growth in the state and country. However, these acres scar Pennsylvania’s landscape with environmental and safety hazards. The state’s waterways are polluted from mine drainage and many people have suffered from lives lost and property damaged from unsafe and unstable AMLs.
Abandoned mine reclamation refers to the process of cleaning up environmental pollutants and safety hazards associated with a site and returning the land to a productive condition. Since the 1960s, Pennsylvania has been a national leader in establishing mining laws and regulations to ensure reclamation occurs after active mining is completed. During the same time, Pennsylvania began an aggressive cleanup of abandoned mine sites.
Abandoned surface and deep mines are scattered in the northeastern anthracite and western bituminous fields. Anthracite coal, or hard coal, is characterized by steeply sloping, sometimes vertical coal seams. Bituminous coal, or soft coal, lies in flat horizontal seams making coal extraction easier but the associated environmental and safety problems are similar to those in the anthracite fields. Click to view a map of the Distribution of Pennsylvania Coals (PDF)
Pennsylvania still accounts for one-third of the country's AML problem. Over $1 billion of high-priority health and safety problems associated with Pennsylvania’s abandoned mine lands are included in the federal Office of Surface Mining’s AML Inventory System and are in need of reclamation. Pennsylvania maintains an inventory of abandoned mine land problems, revising it as new problems are uncovered. Abandoned mine problem areas have been identified in 43 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Click to view maps of the Number of AML Sites by County (PDF)
and the locations of Abandoned Mine Land Problems (PDF)