There are people who don’t think twice about throwing something away that others might think very valuable. There are also people who are willing to give society’s discards value once again. Martin is one of those people. Martin collects trash for a living. He also runs the popular blog, Things I Find in the Garbage, which has 1,167,429 hits and 5,940 followers.
One winter night Martin drove me around the super-rich Montréal neighbourhood, Town of Mount Royal (TMR). We talked in the car—Martin shared some (dumpstered) tea from his (found) Thermos—and, once every so often, stopped at a promising pile of trash. We had to be careful to avoid getting in trouble with the security. It was two days before Christmas but there was no snow on the ground, and there was an occasional sprinkle of rain. After rooting through some trash bags and tossing anything we liked in the trunk we would hop back in the car, picking up where we had left off in the conversation. The following are excerpts from that discussion edited for clarity and flow, with some changes suggested by Martin.
Why did you pass that pile?
Ummm. It just didn’t have a good vibe for some reason. It just seemed like, cardboard, or maybe they’re working on a new bathroom and bought some new shit. Renovation kind of stuff.
So you’re looking for the small things.
Yeah. Small things are good. Well, it’s also just the look of the pile. It’s hard to explain. If you see kind of vintage-ey stuff, that’s good. For sale signs, that’s very good. Because those people are moving, or whatever. There’s a lot of cost-benefit analyses going on my head. Trying to figure out what’s worth the time, you know?
What distinguishes you from others doing this kind of work?
The trash bag. That’s the thing that really makes me a pro, I guess. It’s the fact that I’ve realized that most of the good stuff is in trash bags. A lot of people when I tell them most of the stuff I find is inside bags, are very surprised. And then I’m surprised that they’re surprised. I wouldn’t be able to make a living just picking from open boxes.
I love the bag system. The bags give off a lot of information. You can tell by the shape of them, by the color of them, the quantity of them. But when you have these giant dumpsters, there’s not much information you can glean from that.
What are some things you’ve learned from doing this?
I feel like I kind of know these people in a weird way. Even though I don’t really but I know parts of their story. Often times they’re passed on or whatever. It’s kind of a strange thing. To develop attachments to garbage or people who provide it. (There’s a long pause.) That’s the most interesting part about it, learning these stories and finding this cool old stuff. Because I’m also interested in history, and the history you find when trash picking is pretty interesting.
I’ve learned a lot about how much privilege rich people have. How much different the lifestyle is between rich and poor. Especially when I’m going through this kind of neighbourhood. The kind of things that rich people casually toss away is unbelievable for someone in my position. I remember when I was growing up we needed this special calculator for this high school class, the TI-83+.
They were so expensive!
Yeah. It was actually a stressful family expense, to buy these calculators. Then at a place in Westmount, I found two. Just thrown out. Just another world. The craziest thing to me might be the guy in Westmount who threw out a jar of change, of 56 bucks. This jar of change. This guy just didn’t have the time to… He worked at the bank, actually. He was a banker. At a certain point that’s just junk change to you. And I just can’t, it’s so hard to imagine a situation, where I would even throw out 50 cents. 50 dollars is just insanity.
It’s like we live in a world of disposability.
And privilege. I can spend a dollar on something and not worry too much about it. If you’re making $2 million a year, you can spend $100 and not worry about it. It’s just different, a totally different scale. (A pause.) The only difference I guess is that I’m spending a dollar on candy instead of throwing it directly into the garbage.
[We pass by a street sign I recognize.]
That street is called Algonquin.
They used to live around here, didn’t they?
[We both think about the Indigenous people who continue to fight against the colonization of their unceded land, and how strange it is that a street was named after them in this rich neighbourhood.]
Why do you think there aren’t more people who do this kind of thing?
I think anyone can do what I do, it’s just that there’s a lot of obstacles. A lot of it is social obstacles too. I guess for some people, it’s sort of a social stigma, people don’t want to be seen looking through trash bags at all.
Are you not concerned about that?
I’m not too concerned about it. [But] its pretty much the symbol for undesirable material. The black garbage bag. With some stink lines coming out. Like basically, I’m looking through the actual symbol for all that’s disgusting and filthy and all that. I’m sure there’s more to it, but people definitely get caught up in the symbol.
Are there moments when you do dig through stuff and are just like… oh my god this is the absolute worst.
(Laughs). Oh yeah. Once in a while people decide to mix in the good stuff with just kitchen waste or kitty litter and I’m just like “oh god.” If it looks interesting enough and I can clean it off then I’ll look through pretty much anything. I remember one person dumped a jewelry box into some kitchen waste and chicken bones so for the next half hour I was looking between the chicken bones and all that trying to hopefully find some gold.
Ummm. I don’t think I did from that bag. I found some jewelry in a different bag that didn’t have chicken juice in it. That’s why I was so dedicated to that bag. I found some really nice gold cufflinks actually. But that particular bag wasn’t that great. (Long pause). Yeah you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. A lot of people don’t really want to get dirty at all. But I feel connected to it for whatever reason.
Have you had any narrow escapes with the police or security?
There was this one time. I was checking out some trash and this security guard stopped. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “Well, I’m looking through the trash.” He was like, “I’m going to give you a ticket.” I was like, “Whatever, fuck you.” I just got into my car and drove away but he followed me and I left Hampstead and I’m pretty sure he can’t follow me out of Hampstead. (Laughs). That was my moment of badassery. I didn’t face any repercussions for that. I stopped going to Hampstead during the morning. Then I started going at night. Just to avoid that guy, who most certainly hates me now.
I think that’s the only reason why there’s not many trash pickers in TMR. One time I saw a guy. He was an Indian-looking guy, probably from Parc-Ex, on a bike. I never saw him again. I’m pretty sure TMR security takes care of them. (He laughs.) Anyone who doesn’t look like they belong. You know. You know all about power and all of that stuff.
Do you think doing this has kind of influenced or changed how you see those things?
Not too much. I already had kind of a picture. I think more I’ve just come to see the, uh, differentiation between rich and poor is more vivid in my mind now. Before I knew. But now I feel. I guess that’s the difference. I guess I always knew that authority was a weird thing. (He laughs.)
What did we find, you ask? In an email, Martin broke down the proceeds from that night’s trash run:
“I didn’t have the cords for the PSPs, and the Gameboy had a pretty dark screen but I sold them ‘as is’ on eBay for a profit of 65$. The Expo 67 pamphlets (from that spot with the old books) sold recently for 50$ + shipping. The old books await yard sale season, though I did barter a few on the Bunz Trading Zone Facebook page for beer / food. All in all, a solid if unspectacular night (I find about 80$ worth of stuff on an “average” night, but sometimes I’ll find much more or nothing at all).”
(He doesn’t mention the electric can-opener, the solid metal vase, and the in-working-order brand-new stereo system I took home that night.)
Aaron Vansintjan is a co-editor at Uneven Earth and is currently pursuing a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. He writes about gentrification, food politics, environmental justice, and contemporary politics.
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As we found out on May 3rd, 2016, coal comes in a variety of shapes, textures, and sizes. Yes, we had “invaded” an open-cast coal mine for the sake of the climate, we were calling for a more just economic system that is not based on extraction, exploitation, and pollution. But in the presence of this substance, we became children collecting shells and pebbles at the beach: we crawled on hands and knees, exclaimed “woah, look at all the layers!”, placed them gently in bags to give to our friends later.
Holding a chunk of coal in my hand, I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible. This opaque matter, which sucks in all the light around it, has stood at the center of social and environmental struggles for the last two centuries. It has powered science and innovation, fueled wars, and helped build the cities we live in. These thoughts imbued the coal I was holding with a sort of enchantment, inspired a reverence I had not felt before.
I thought: this is the stuff. This is what they want. This brittle, dark substance powers my computer, lights my living room, and makes our modern livelihood possible.
Ffos-y-fran, the United Kingdom’s largest open-cast coal mine, is nestled in the hills just outside of Merthyr Tydfil, a Welsh community of just 65,000 people. Miller Argent, the owner of the mine, employs 200 people and has dug up 5 million tonnes of award-winning coal, and intends to extract 11 million tonnes more.
For decades, the community has resisted the coal mine, complaining about the proximity of the mine, pollution of their ground water and air, the noise from explosives, and that it’s really, really ugly. While the community was in favor of deepcast mining—which involves less visible impact on the environment and will often employ local residents—open-cast mining employs far less people, most of whom are specialized in operating specific machinery and will move on once the mine is exhausted. In 2007 Miller Argent proposed to start another site nearby. Once again, the community resisted.
Reclaim the Power (RTP) is a decentralized network of climate justice activists—they organize without central leadership, coming together for strategic actions to block further development of the fossil fuel economy in the United Kingdom. As part of a two-week global wave of actions against fossil fuels, RTP organized their largest action yet: to invade a coal mine and shut it down for a day, symbolically highlighting the need to shift to a more just, fossil fuel-free economy.
Working with some amazing local activists, the United Valleys Action Group, RTP meticulously planned a campsite with the facilities to support hundreds of people (food, water, even composting toilets), orchestrated a massive media campaign, and even used the opportunity to host workshops, art-making, and dance parties. The result was beyond a direct action: it involved celebration, education, and politicization.
At several points during the action, I heard people remark, “what matters is how this appears in the media”, or, “this is useless if it’s not covered in the news.” Now, a week after the action, I want to reflect, not on its media impact, not on its success or failure—all important concerns. Very simply, I’d like to tell the story of what it’s like to be in a coal mine, explore it, and play with its terrain.
Unearthing the logic of the mine
“In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.”
The Situationists argued that the alienation workers felt in the factory had extended to every aspect of modern life. Our cities have become depoliticized, commodified spaces primarily geared toward profit and social isolation.
To confront this, they developed tactics—games—that could repurpose the city and allow them to engage with it differently. To them, understanding how the city shapes our daily lives was paramount in overcoming alienation from our environment, and breaking down isolation between each other.
If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine.
One of these games was the “dérive”, meaning “drift”, where a small group of people would navigate the city, letting its landscape and terrain guide their movements. This would allow them to come to new conclusions about their city and pin-point ways to counteract its commodification and estrangement.
If the city is the site of our daily alienation, then the coal mine is its engine. The growth of modern urban life is inseparable from the extraction of coal. London first outmatched Amsterdam economically when the peasantry, displaced from their land, were forced to work in the coal mines. Coal powered the textile mills and food processing factories, which in turn enabled the cotton and sugarcane industries, fueled by slave labor, to flourish in the Americas. Coal kick-started a new world order, just as it continues to be a key ingredient for the industrial development of East Asian countries today.
Since the 1960s—when the Situationists were most active—the world has globalized and urbanized. We are now faced with what geographers call “planetary urbanization”—in which even the “countryside” has been shaped in the likeness of, and for the purpose of, growing megacities, and it has become difficult to say exactly where the city begins and ends. Now, all types of terrains and landscapes have been transformed into an interconnected mesh, a standing reserve of resources, extractive flows, and sites of commodified value.
The coal mine is an essential component of urbanization, and a great place for a dérive.
So why not think of the action at Foss-y-fran as a mass dérive? The organizers realized this: one affinity group dragged around giant inflatable “cobblestones”—a direct and conscious reference to the Paris May ’68 slogan “under the cobblestones, the beach”. The slogan recalled the cobblestones lifted by students to throw at police and create barricades with, but it also suggested that capital could be subverted by engaging with your surroundings in new ways.
It was this sense of play that many brought to the coal mine. When we arrived at the mine, there was a moment of wonder, excitement. This required weaving our way past giant mounds of slag that had been “reclaimed”—in other words, they grew some grass on top of it and allowed sheep to graze on them. But once past these, we entered a different world: everything around us was black and grey, muddy, gritty. Tall cliffs surrounded us on all sides, and nestled in their shadows were a handful of massive yellow machines—the diggers and the trucks.
The access roads were made for and by these machines. We were told to be careful of the smaller heaps of slag on each side: these could collapse and endanger others below. Finally, we found ourselves in the belly of the beast: the place where coal was being actively mined.
Here we were, in the hundreds, in a landscape not intended for pedestrians, let alone crowds. It was no accident, then, that we tended to gravitate toward the large machines that shaped this landscape. We quickly climbed up them and appropriated them with our slogans and games.
If you string a banner—“NO NEW COAL”—between two large diggers, you can play a game of volleyball with the “cobblestones”. The arm of the digger—just over two meters long—creates a hollow space ideal for amplifying a portable sound-system. When it rains, several dozen people can hide under a digger and start a mini-rave.
Once the initial excitement receded, we took strolls around the site, picking up rocks, inspecting deep pools of water, clambering up ledges. At one point, we stopped in front of a steep cliff. From a crevice in the layers of rock bubbled a tiny stream, staining the rock around it with a bright, rusty red. Even within this site dedicated to excavation, wildness still found a way to seep through the cracks. Amongst several people that I talked to, there was an appreciation for this landscape that I hadn’t expected: we agreed that there was something sublime about it.
Activists are often worried about whether their direct actions really “make an impact” or “succeed”. At meetings in London I attended in the past year, people would often suggest that community-based (“local”) organizing was less effective than orchestrating a large media presence and announcing clear, attainable demands, achieved through mass movements with precise political platforms. I’ve heard people criticize temporary occupations because they fail to scale up beyond the local, and, without institutionalized resistance or well-defined goals, they are unable to address the root of our problems.
The action at Ffos-y-Fran was highly temporary in nature: a day later, the mine was operating perfectly, without a hitch. It did not change any government policies, nor did participants articulate a coherent policy platform. What’s more, for every coal mine shut down in the UK, there are ten new ones in China, Vietnam, and Australia.
But is this how we want to define success? Ende Gelaende, the Germany-based anti-coal group whose invasion of a German coal mine last year inspired the Ffos-y-Fran action, loudly proclaim: “we are the investment risk!” The joke is that activists are happy to speak in the language that the fossil fuel companies use. Today they are at it again, with 3,000 people occupying the largest coal mine in Europe.
But the joke is double-sided: they are also poking fun at that very same language. It acknowledges that success cannot just be defined according to the language of the status quo. If all we mean by success is a good media presence, divestment of stocks, or a shift in government policy, then anything that does not look like that is ignored.
If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action.
In his book Territories in Resistance, Raúl Zibechi argues that blockades and spontaneous actions have much deeper roots and are less fragmented than they seem. Rather than measuring their success in terms of whether they were able to change the state structure, he instead sees them as “lightning illuminating the night sky”: the direct action is just the more visible part of much larger, non-institutionalized movements that are already creating a new world within, and outside of, the old.
How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy. For a day, adults became children, they turned machines into playgrounds, and they formed new relationships with each other.
How about this for success: for a whole day, 300 of the UK’s most active climate justice activists got the chance to be inside of a coal mine, to understand its logic, and to get a feel for what is one of the most integral cogs to the current economy.
If you measure success according to statist, market-based goals, you will miss the non-statist, non-market activity that lurks underneath the action. You will miss the heaps of dishes, the hours of meetings, the work put into making food. You will miss the crucial elements of a new type of movement that sees cooking, cleaning, playing, and caring as forms of resistance. These elements are busy rehearsing new ways of doing things, new types of economies.
The nature of the dérive is open-ended: it requires a kind of receptivity to new experiences, to new realizations. In return, it provides fresh insight into the machinations of our world, it suggests strategic weak points that may have not been visible before. If we are to resist today’s economy and plan for a new one, we cannot allow the elite to define success for us. Just as we must imagine new worlds, we must learn to create life and play in the ruins of the old.
Lifting the spell
The action was nearing its end. By 2 p.m., many of us were getting tired, others were just anxious to move out of the site we had occupied for the past five hours.
As a group, we decided that some of us would guard the diggers, which had become so familiar to us, and others would go explore the rest of the mines and try to stop the works that were happening elsewhere.
On the way there, we were met with a convoy of white Land Rovers filled with roughly 80 fully-outfitted riot police. They gave us two minutes to leave the premises. Now about 70 ourselves, we gathered in a circle to make a quick decision. I split off from the group with about fifteen others—not wanting to risk arrest at this point—and we made our way up another excavation site, which then curved around and over the hillside, finally leading us to the jagged edge of the mine.
The day had turned dark. I felt a bit like Frodo in Lord of the Rings: in the very guts of Mount Doom, my thoughts transformed by the landscape, all willpower receding in face of the challenge ahead of me.
When I reached the edge, I felt a thick layer of moss under my feet and saw the rolling Welsh hills in front of me. I collapsed onto the green ground. All of a sudden the dark spell was lifted. The massive black coal pit, at one point so impressive, had shaped my mood, and it gave the impression that there was no escape. Hugging the moss, I realized the extent to which the mine had clouded my judgements, and knew that it could no longer affect me.
From this edge we could see the events unfolding below us. A group of activists stood aside from the police, who, having left their vehicles, marched in impressive formation down the road, toward the deepest part of the mine, toward those who were guarding the diggers. We stayed at this look-out spot for about an hour, sharing snacks, talking about the day, and observing the show-down between the police and the handful of activists that remained.
It was at that point that the action was mostly over. It would take about two more hours for everyone else to leave. Some successfully stopped activity in other parts of the mine. Others chained themselves to the diggers. No arrests were made. In groups, we arrived back in camp, and were met with a warm welcome from those who had stayed behind.
A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out of the mine. Business as usual.
The next day, I set off back to the city. A couple of minutes outside of the camp, a red traffic light obstructed my path. An endless supply of trucks, loaded high with coal, rolled out from the mine. Business as usual. It seemed like yesterday was an illusion, a trip into the Kingdom of Narnia. Waiting for the light to change, I reached into my pocket and my fingers found a small rock. I took it out and looked at it: it was black, the size of a coin. It glinted in the sun. The traffic light turned green, and I put the piece of coal back into my pocket.
Postscript: lessons learned
If our action was like a “dérive”, I’d like to contribute three small notes to its methodology, none of them particularly new but each reinforced by my experiences of the action.
First, the structure of the “affinity group”—developed by activists to maintain autonomy and decentralization within actions, while ensuring trust and cohesion among the participants—is also useful for drifting through the terrain of the coal mine. Guy Debord notes that a dérive works best when capped at 2-4 participants. We could say that the affinity group, which tends to be comprised of 2-10 people, and will often be broken down into “buddy groups” of 2-3 people, makes it possible to conduct a dérive en masse.
Second, anonymity—upheld by activists in these kinds of actions for fear of surveillance and political persecution—is a double-edged sword. Paranoia inhibited trust between us, deflating some of the potential for making connections with others and multiplying strong bonds. It also inhibited some from being more outgoing and honest in their opinions, and created a hierarchy between long-time activists who knew and trusted each other and newcomers, like myself. Then again, the necessity of anonymity in the action led to a new experiential relationship for those who didn’t already know each other: who a person is was stressed less than the interactions you have with them. In these fleeting interactions, you were judged by your immediate acts and not by your ideas, past, political stance, etc. Kind of like at a party—a mass trespassing party.
Third, problems of exclusivity and ableism were apparent throughout the action. I met an older man who was almost in tears because he had been excluded systematically. Whenever he had tried to join an affinity group, people turned away or stopped talking. As a result, he didn’t feel comfortable joining in the day of the occupation. His way of speaking and interacting was unusual, and I thought that many of these activists might have been uncomfortable engaging with someone who seemed like he was mentally unstable.
In addition, one of the participants of the action used a wheelchair, and she constantly had to assert herself to make the action accessible to her. At one point, some people in her affinity group accompanied her to observe the edge of the mine: doing this could be seen, not as an inconvenience, but as an extremely radical action. It challenges both the world shaped by and for machines and the often inaccessible world of activist actions.
If an action is based on trust, it also means that the dominant group will define who is “trustworthy”, and not being member of that group or having mental health issues may increase the chance of not being trusted. Similarly, if an action is organized by mostly able, white folks, then the activities will likely feel alienating to those not part of those demographics, and they will need to work so much harder to be involved. A dérive can be so much more instructive if people excluded by this alienating, isolating society were to participate: they may be better equipped than anyone else to notice the weak points in the oppressive terrain.
All photos and videos by Aaron Vansintjan except for #17 (of the feet under the digger), which was taken by Anonymous.
Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, and long bicycle rides.
Drive through Northeastern Pennsylvania and you may see black hills of coal and orange water flowing near or through towns. What you’re witnessing is the legacy of historic anthracite coal mining, which fueled the USA’s industrial revolution and two world wars, had extremely dangerous labor practices, and lead to the destruction of its landscape. Diverse hardwood forests filled with wildlife were replaced with black mountains of coal waste with acidic soil that can only support birch trees, briar bushes, and scrub vegetation. Thriving cold-water fisheries were replaced with abandoned mine drainage (AMD), orange water devoid of oxygen and all aquatic life.
While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation.
Anthracite mining once fueled the region’s economy, but after coal companies began to go bankrupt, once-thriving towns were left with nothing but devastated land & water and the scattered spines of abandoned coal breakers & mine shafts. Land reclamation projects and AMD treatment systems help to alleviate some of these problems, but these solutions are often expensive. While mining issues are gaining national attention since the 2015 Gold King mine spill in Colorado, Pennsylvania sometimes seems like the forgotten state despite having more mining issues than any other state in the nation. Perhaps it’s the fact that our mining heritage is in the past, while many other states continue to have active mineral and hardrock mining, allowing their issues to be more present.
The black hills of coal are more commonly known as culm piles. These piles are created by dumping coal waste, such as rock and shale, after separating it from the valuable anthracite coal. While these piles are large, they represent approximately 50% of what was taken out of the ground, revealing the massive size of mining voids lying beneath Pennsylvania’s valleys.
Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process.
Land reclamation projects are mostly funded through state and federal grants, with EPA Brownfield Grants and PA Department of Environmental Protection Growing Greener grants allowing non-profits to help recover devastated landscapes. Land reclamation generally involves bringing the land back to a natural contour, adding a layer of topsoil to encourage vegetation, and seeding the land in order to begin the reclamation process. While this process is straight-forward, mining pits can be incredibly steep, making the reclamation process take longer and be more costly.
AMD, or abandoned mine drainage, is another legacy of past mining. AMD flows from mine openings and drilled boreholes to relieve pressure from the underground mine pools. AMD forms when water reacts with pyrite, or ‘fool’s gold’, deep in the underground abandoned mine workings.
As pyrite is exposed to water and oxygen, the sulfides within the rock react and break down to form sulfuric acid and iron oxide. Other metals and minerals within the rock can also become exposed and pollute the water, with many discharges in PA and other states containing heavy metals such as iron and aluminum, and some discharges containing trace amounts of harmful metals such as lead and arsenic.
To put this into perspective, many mines were 500-1000 feet deep, with some mine shafts reaching approximately 2000 feet in depth. Like digging a hole in the sand at the beach, at a certain point water will keep filling the hole no matter how much you try to keep it out. It’s the same with mine water. Once mining companies hit the water table, they would always have to pump water out of the mines, continually increasing the cost to produce anthracite coal. After all of the coal companies went bankrupt, along with historic events such as the Knox Mine Disaster in 1959 and the Historic Agnes Flood of 1972, deep mining ended in most parts of the Coal Region.
The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy.
The Knox Mine Disaster occurred on January 22, 1959 when the Knox Coal Company drilled within 20 feet of the Susquehanna River bottom. The immense water pressure caused the mine to collapse, creating a whirlpool that filled miles of underground tunnels with water. 12 miners died in the tragedy. The disaster highlighted the dangers of irresponsible mining practice, with the ultimate consequence being the flooding of honeycombed mine workings throughout the Wyoming Valley causing working mines to be inundated with water, effectively ending the already struggling anthracite coal industry.
By the Agnes Flood of 1972 in which the Susquehanna River rose 40 feet and devastated the Wyoming Valley, most mining companies had claimed bankruptcy and as the pumps removing water were shut off, mine water began to spill out of any available opening leaving streets, basements, and streams filled with polluted mine water.
Furthermore, because mining companies were not required to treat abandoned mine drainage or reclaim mining land, once a company went bankrupt, the burden fell on taxpayers and government organizations to clean up the mess. Present-day active companies are required to reclaim land and treat any AMD discharges caused by their mining.
In Pennsylvania, AMD occurs in the Anthracite Region in the Northeast and the Bituminous Region in Western PA. In the Northern Anthracite fields, most AMD discharges have heavy concentrations of iron with relatively neutral pH’s around 6.5, the same pH as normal rainfall. In the Middle & Southern Fields and the Bituminous Region, discharges tend to be more acidic (4 pH) with heavy concentrations of aluminum. Treatment systems help remove AMD and restore water quality. There are 2 types of treatment, active and passive. Active treatment refers to the use of added components such as chemicals (limestone) and machinery (oxygenation machines and automatic chemical dosers) to treat AMD.
Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.
In general, active systems are more costly and require electricity and regular maintenance to remain efficient. Passive treatment refers to the use of natural settling in large ponds for oxygenation as well as natural growth of wetland plants to treat AMD. Passive methods include settling ponds and using gravity to move water through a treatment system. These systems are usually more cost effective and don’t have many long term maintenance or operation costs. Overall, treatment systems are expensive to install and even after successful installation, long-term upkeep can become difficult to fund and maintain.
While this pollution problem will take a lot of effort to remediate, dedicated watershed associations, local conservation districts, and environmental non-profits are working to fix this problem by installing treatment systems, restoring streams, and educating the public about this issue through community events such as illegal dump cleanups on minelands and environmental education projects with community organizations and local school districts.
Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future.
Pennsylvania’s mine land issues are a vast, far-reaching, and expensive problem. The effect can be seen nationwide, with other coal states such as Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Illinois facing the same issues. Hardrock mining states also face similar issues, as seen with the Gold King Mine disaster in Colorado. Globally, countries like China, India, and Australia are just beginning to produce mass amounts of coal. Pennsylvania’s legacy of abandoned minelands and AMD have implications nationally as well as globally. While clean energy is an important goal to achieve in order to help move towards a new era of environmental stewardship, coal mining communities need to be supported in the form of mineland and AMD clean-ups as well as economic stimulation in order to successfully move towards a better future. Pennsylvania’s struggles can serve as an example for other communities throughout the United States and developing industrial countries.
All photos by Gabby Zawacki.
Gabby Zawacki is a Watershed Outreach Specialist for the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR), an environmental non-profit in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In her free time she enjoys hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, traveling, and photography.