Cooks Run is my “home water.” I learned to fish on Cooks Run and – even though I don’t remember it – I was told I caught my first trout in Rock Run. As the story goes, I was fishing with Dad, my brother and sister, when I caught a small wild brook trout. I was so excited I ran up to the car, where Mother was reading a book. I thrust the fish into the open window of the car, at which point it decided to un-impale itself from the hook, and dropped onto my mother’s lap. That was followed by a lot of yelling screaming. Somehow the fish survived this traumatic encounter and made it back to Rock Run. However, I was the one that was hooked, and thus began my slide down the slippery slope of trout fishing.
As the years went by, I took to trout fishing with abandon. Fishing Cooks Run below Rock Run there was bigger water which made casting easier for this novice fly caster. I had a bamboo rod in my teens. Don’t get too excited, it was a Heddon, with an old single action open frame reel. I still have the reel. I gave the rod to a “friend” to refinish and re-wrap and to this day the s.o.b. claims he never got it. But I digress.
Cooks Run is one of those wonderful Pennsylvania freestone streams that tumbles out of the mountains. The insects are diverse – in the non-AMD section – and native brook trout and wild browns populate the stream along with stockies put there by the PF&BC as well as the Western Clinton County Sportsmen’s cooperative nursery.
In 1974 things changed for the worse. Cooks Run has the unfortunate geological fate to lie just inside the Pennsylvania bituminous coal measures. Crowley Run, the largest tributary that meets Cooks Run about a mile upstream of its juncture with the West Branch of the Susquehanna River, has been polluted with AMD for well over a century. Even as a youngster I do not recall ever hearing anyone talking about fish in Crowley Run. The AMD was a result of underground mining that began just before the turn of the Twentieth Century. It was further exacerbated by surface mining in the 1950s and 1960s. Through all of that Cooks Run remained clean and full of trout. In 1974 a permit was issued for two separate sites near the headwaters of Camp Run and Rock Run at the opposite end of the watershed.
At the time the area was about as wild as any place in the Sproul State Forest. Two tracks through the woods led to the sites. Two long-abandoned log cabins were near the site. In my memory one cabin had completely fallen in and the other, though standing, was uninhabitable.
Fran Contracting of Wallaceton, Clearfield County was issued the permit to mine, against the objections of the Western Clinton County Sportsmen and several others. That part of Clinton County has high sulfur coal with high ash content. There is no alkaline material in the overburden to buffer any AMD and the coal lies atop an underclay that is high in aluminum. The underlying sandstone is largely fractured allowing groundwater to travel about anywhere. All things considered, it is a terrible place to mine coal.
By 1977 the effects of mining on the Fran sites were noted downstream. Water that percolated through the backfill on top of the mountain became acidic. As it travelled across the pit floor the acid dissolved aluminum – highly lethal to trout at low pH – dropped into the fractures and came out as base flow in Rock Run, downstream of Wildcat Hollow. To look at Rock Run where the AMD enters the untrained eye cannot tell the difference between clean water and AMD. However, when Rock Run meets Cooks Run, the pH rises allowing the aluminum to precipitate out and coat the streambed with a white precipitate. The discharge from the larger 37 acre site emanates from the toe of spoil, and pollutes Camp Run. It has a more characteristic red-orange color that most people associate with AMD. From Rock Run down, Cooks Run wasn’t just polluted, it was dead!
This was my trout water. I was incensed. I wrote letters to the Fish Commission and DER, as well as my state representatives and senators, as well as the local state reps. Only the Fish Commission responded. Paul Swanson was the Regional Law Enforcement Director for the Fish Commission, and he put me in touch with Harry “Snakey” Snodgrass, of the WCCSA.
In June of 1978 Snakey organized a meeting to be held on the stream to see the effects of AMD. It’s been a long time and I don’t remember who all were there but in addition to Snakey and me, there was Jay Johnston, WCO of PFC; Jack Paulhamus, District Forester; Harry Anderson, retired Forest Ranger; Bryce Putnam and D.R. Thompson of DER’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation; Dave Wolf, a writer at the time for the Potter County Enterprise; and a few others.
While standing on the bridge at Camp Run, either Putnam or Thompson made the statement that the stream had been polluted before the mining. At that point someone said, “Let’s throw them in the creek!” The two mining officials ran back to their car and refused to get out for the rest of the trip.
Fran Contracting and their consultant made a few half-hearted attempts to treat the AMD but it was futile. AMD continued to pour out of the site.
In 1981 I transferred to the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation’s Hawk Run District Office. The area encompassed by office included in Clinton County. Among other things I sampled AMD across the region, reviewed permits and talked about solutions to cleaning up Cooks Run.
By then the company had given up and its bonds posted on the site were forfeited. The $11,000 was not near enough to develop a detailed plan to clean up the site or treat the discharge. The Clean Streams Law in Pennsylvania pointedly states that in the event of a discharge that does not meet effluent standards the landowner is ultimately responsible. In this case the landowner is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as the area is in the Sproul State Forest. This nuance in the law caused the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (now the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission) to threaten to sue the Department of Environmental Resources (of which the Bureau of Forestry was then a part) for allowing a discharge of AMD to a stream. Paul Swanson, along with a young biologist for the Fish Commission named John Arway went into District Forester Butch Davey’s office and told him in very pointed language of their intent. Well that went over like finding a turd in a punchbowl.
Inter-agency warfare was not something anyone wanted, yet the PFC and DER were ready to go at it. Sampling and studies were conducted. Meetings were held. I was involved in my work as a Mining Permit & Compliance Specialist, and that is how I came to know John. Plans were brainstormed and discarded as being unfeasible, too expensive and just plain stupid. We considered passive treatment – then in its infancy, active treatment, driving the reaction to endpoint, burning the carbonaceous material in-situ and on and on.
After transferring the Harrisburg in 1985 I began to work with Joe Schueck, a hydrogeologist/engineer. At the time Joe worked for D.R. Thompson, mentioned previously who never said much about Cooks Run. Joe was into the “magic toys” of technology. Terrain conductivity, resistivity, magnetometry and whatever other tools or technology Joe could find, we ran on the site. We drilled water sampling wells and collected hundreds of samples. In addition Joe worked with Terry Ackman from the technology side of the U.S. Bureau of Mines. Terry had developed a technique where concrete grout was pumped under pressure into backfill to seal AMD producing materials. The technique looked promising. Another key player that entered the picture was Dr. Barry Scheetz, a professor in materials handling and an expert in concrete at Penn State University.
A plan was developed to map the site using the “magic toys” to determine where the AMD was being produced. Then a series of holes would be drilled into the “pods” and a concrete grout would be pumped into the ground. The grout would be made with Fluidized Bed Combustion Fly Ash (FBCFA) which would produce a low tensile strength, high compressive strength grout. Bureau of Mining and Reclamation Director, Ernie Giovannitti was enthusiastic about the project, and somehow we found money to try the experiment.
One of the vagaries of the project was people; we couldn’t hire people to do the job. Mining and construction companies were loath to take on the project because of the remoteness of the site and the questionable technique. Even though the Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation (BAMR) has a construction crew, that bureau wanted no part of the experiment. We would get fluidized bed combustion fly ash from Fort Drum for free, but paid the trucking costs, we could rent any of the equipment we needed. This included concrete mixers, an auger to load the ash and various other things. The Bureau of Forestry loaned us a skid loader and water tank truck. Now all that was needed was people to operate the equipment.
With Ernie’s blessing we put out a call across DER to find volunteers to come up to Clinton County for a week and run equipment. We thought we might get ten or twenty. We got scads of volunteers from all across the department – except BAMR.
In the summer of 1992 the project began. Joe Schueck was the man in charge and I was involved as a loyal assistant. I had bitched and moaned for so long about something needing to be done that it was put up or shut time and it was time to put up.
Through August we drilled 545 holes into the backfill. The holes were cased with 4 inch PVC electrical conduit. The lowest section of conduit was perforated with ¾ inch holes to allow the grout to flow out of the casing into the backfill. At the top of the casing was a threaded coupling to allow for the hose of the grout pump to be attached.
At the end of August we were ready to begin pumping grout. The first loads of fly ash arrived on site at about 2:30 in the morning, and Joe and I were there to meet them. Talk about an “Oh shit!” moment. We were now committed.
Later that morning we began to pump grout. We hauled water to the site via tank truck and dumped it into a collapsible pond. Using a grain auger we loaded fly ash into the concrete mixer and added water with the help of a portable pump. The ratio was 1 part water to between 1 and 1.6 parts ash. The resulting grout slurry was about the consistency of thin pancake batter. Then we drove the mixer to the designated injection field, selected the injection hole and using a concrete pump, pumped the grout down the hole until it would not take any more grout. This was usually expressed by the grout coming out of the ground near the hole or the cap blowing off the top of the casing. Some holes took more grout than others. Some would take more than one mixer while other holes would take only a part of a mixer.
Anyone that has ever worked with fly ash knows that it is fine and dirty. Loading the hopper of the auger at the loading site with a skid loader was dusty – sometimes to the point of blotting out the sun. When the ash was mixed with water the slurry was muddy. There was just no way around it. Through September and into October we mixed and pumped grout. As the weather turned cold we had to abandon the project for the year.
Through the winter we plotted and planned on how to improve the efficiency of the project. Early sample results from the monitoring wells were encouraging. In May of 1993 we re-started the project. That year we had two mixers. The one from the previous year had been worn out when we began and by the time we were finished with it, it was completely shot. The two we got in 1993 weren’t much better. We also rented a closed cab back hoe to load the ash. This was a great improvement over the open skid loader. By the end of August we had completed grouting. Altogether we pumped 2007 cubic meters of grout into the 545 holes and used another 765 cubic meters to cap overtop of some of the particularly bad or “hot” zones.
We returned to Harrisburg, convinced we had done what we could and we would see success of the project. We knew that we hadn’t been able to get all of the AMD producing backfill encapsulated but we thought we had made a significant difference. Water sample results were initially encouraging. We were certain we had made an impact on Rock Run.
Through the rest of the decades we continued to sample. The results seemed to diminish. Joe moved over to BAMR to head the AMD Division and in 1999 I too went to BAMR. A change in leadership in that bureau had begun to make it more than a “put the dirt back in the hole” organization.
Passive treatment had advanced and Joe formulated a plan to use an anoxic method where sulfates in the water would be converted back to pyrite in a stable form. There’s actually a lot more to the chemical reactions but that’s the gist of it. He began the work on a large scale bench test in late 2000 and by 2002 we saw the results. It was not what we had hoped for.
By 2009 both Joe and I had retired. The sites were still producing AMD but we had tried our best to bring about positive change.
Techniques in passive and active treatment in AMD had advanced exponentially since the grout injection project. In the early 2000s BAMR had tried to collect all the water coming off the site and run it through a treatment system but because of the amount of water and the highly fractured rock, collection of all the water was deemed impossible.
Further investigation of the site began about 2011 and it was decided to re-mine the small site to the east and mix the backfill with limestone dust. The project began in 2012. All of our previous geotechnical work had not shown significant water on the small site, yet when excavation was begun, significant groundwater was found. Following completion of the site, water was sampled and the results were extremely encouraging.
In the spring of 2017 bids were let to re-mine the 37 acre injection site using the same technique and that brings us to today.