Legacy of Past Mining Practices

Problems and Solutions Graphic from the 2005 Times Shamrock Newspapers Investigation Series: Deep Trouble by Jessica D. Matthews

Coal has been mined in Pennsylvania since the late 1700s. The impact of this resource extraction is widespread and has many facets.  Aside from the global effects of rising greenhouse gases and air pollution caused by fossil fuels, such as coal, Coal Region landscapes have been transformed into virtual waste lands.  


‘Moonscapes and Bleeding Streams’

Those who venture too close to open mines take their safety into their own hands. Homes built over abandoned underground mines are at extreme risk of collapsing into the ground. Streams, void of aquatic life, are smothered with a sludge made of heavy metals and coal silt.


Abandoned Mine Lands

  • 280,000 acres – 3 times the size of Philadelphia
  • Pennsylvania has 1/3 of the national problem across the country
  • It will take an estimate of $15 billion to clean it all up
  • Impacts ecological balance of the environment – especially water quality
  • Many different health and safety hazards

Abandoned Mine Drainage

  • Forms when surface water comes in contact with coal material, pyrites, and air
  • Contains iron, aluminum, manganese, and sulfates
  • pH levels sometimes below 3 (very acidic)
  • Impacts over 5,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania
  • AMD is Pennsylvania’s largest non-point source water pollutant

Highwalls &
Water-filled Pits

  • Highwalls are cliff-like banks at strip mines
    • Can be hundreds of feet high
    • Deaths and injuries from falling
  • Water-filled pits are found at the base ofhighwalls
    • Sometimes popular recreation spots
    • Drownings occur


  • Moving, shifting, cracking, or sinking of the earth
  • Wooden support structures or pillars in underground mines decay and collapse
  • Changes in mine pool levels can be another cause
  • Buildings are also affected by subsidence
  • Water supplies and other utilities may be affected or damaged

Open shafts

  • Surface openings of underground mines
  • May be camouflaged by overgrown brush or covered in ice
  • Can be hundreds of feet deep
  • Usually contain water
  • Falls, entrapment, and drownings can occur
  • Often leak mine gases into nearby areas

Refuse Piles

  • Material left over after coal mining and processing
  • Contain coal and rock
  • Runoff from piles causes surface mine drainage
  • One pile can cover many acres
  • Some piles take on the formation of a mountain range
  • Destroy natural landscape and create wastelands
  • Black material soaks up heat and radiates it back into the atmosphere


  • Refuse piles or exposed coal seams catch fire
  • Illegal garbage or brush is dumped in these abandoned areas and set on fire
  • Pennsylvania has 45 known deep mine fires
  • The oldest mine fire started in 1912 and is still burning today near Wilkes-Barre
  • Dangerous gases are released and can seep into homes (i.e., carbon monoxide)
  • Cause subsidence once underground mine pillars burn

Old Equipment & Structures

  • Abandoned mine equipment and processing buildings
  • Buildings are often deteriorated, unstable, and can contain asbestos
  • Attract curious trespassers



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