There is a swimming hole just off the road to Ogdensburg. Thanks to acid mine drainage, the water in this part of the Upper Tioga River has been sterile for years, clear as new glass all the way to the stones on the bottom. I remember taking my kids there to swim—we called it The Temp then, but I think now it goes by Pirate’s Rock—and thinking, “well, we don’t have to worry about anything in the water because nothing can live in it.” This was thirty years ago; it didn’t occur to me then that I could or should do something about it.
Shane Nickerson, Blossburg’s mayor, has a similar memory.
“I grew up here, and I just accepted that the river was polluted,” he says.
We were not alone in that mindset. But, as was evidenced by a recent celebration involving dozens of people who, over the past nearly twenty years, have done the work of launching the Upper Tioga’s renaissance, those days of resignation are gone. One of those people was Andy Gavin, deputy executive director for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC). He recalled that sixteen years ago one of his first jobs with the SRBC was to come to Tioga County and assess the “legacy coal issues” associated with the Tioga and other waterways. It was a rather dismal assessment.
This May day, though, he was with a group of more than 100, ready to take part in an on-site ribbon cutting to mark the offcial start-up of an acid mine drainage treatment system for Fallbrook Creek. Fallbrook is part of the Upper Tioga River watershed, which is, in turn, part of the Susquehanna and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. (The Tioga River originates in Armenia Township, Bradford County, and eventually becomes part of the Susquehanna.) The fact that the long-discussed treatment system had actually become a reality was enough of a dazzler but, as Gavin pointed out, “it takes people to put these systems in the ground...it’s rare that you have a group with that sort of stamina.”
The group with the stamina is the Tioga County Concerned Citizens Committee (TCCCC), headed by Charlie and Joyce Andrews. They, in turn, take the opportunity whenever they can to credit the people and organizations who have stuck with them over the years and tears of attempting to bring life back to the Tioga. Those partners include the Borough of Blossburg, the Blossburg Municipal Authority, Hillside Rod and Gun Club, the Tioga County Conservation District, the Tioga County Commissioners, Ward Township, the Bureau of Forestry, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Trout Unlimited, SRBC, Pittsburgh-based Hedin Environmental, and, TCCCC’s newest collaborator, the Houston-based Southwestern Energy (SWN).
Why would people working for the third largest supplier of natural gas in the United States want to help solve an environmental problem in Tioga County, Pennsylvania—a problem they did not create?
Bill Way, president and CEO of Southwestern Energy, offered the explanation. The Appalachian Basin and the Keystone State are major producing areas for SWN, he said. Because one of the company’s major core values is the environment and taking care of it, “we don’t take more than we give back.” Pennsylvania has been a “friendly place for us to invest,” he continued, and “making a positive impact on local communities has always been a key part of our culture.” He said SWN has participated in and completed other conservation projects in Arkansas, West Virginia, and Colorado. Add to that the company’s self-imposed mandate to be “fresh water neutral” by the end of this year. It means, Way said, that for each gallon of fresh water used in operations, SWN will replenish or offset an equivalent amount via conservation and innovation.
“We’re giving back to Mother Nature,” he said, “and we can do much more when we work together.”
That working together came with a $2.5 million price tag which SWN assumed, including a trust fund endowment, to be administered by the Tioga County Conservation District, that will cover the cost of operating the treatment system for the next couple of decades. In the two separate passive treatment systems, built where the town of Fallbrook once thrived, acidic water flows through limestone beds at the rate of about 1,000 gallons per minute. Water stays in contact with the limestone for an average of twelve hours. The limestone dissolves and neutralizes the acidity; the water then flows into polishing ponds where other contaminants settle out before it runs back into the Upper Tioga. Financial loss in fishery resources due to impacts of acid mine drainage into the Tioga River and its tributaries is estimated conservatively to be $287,000 annually. As the pH increases due to the neutralizing action of the limestone, portions of the Fallbrook and the Tioga will again be able to support aquatic life, including stocked trout.
Coal may no longer be king but 100-plus years ago it reigned in places like Fallbrook, Morris Run, Arnot, Antrim. There was a lot of money to be made and so getting coal out of the ground and to the market as quickly and cheaply as possible was the name of the game. There was no shortage of labor— manpower then was a somewhat expendable commodity. Just ask union organizer Mother Jones or Blossburg’s own William B. Wilson, who went on to become the first Secretary of Labor, as they tackled the labor-related problems associated with coal mining in those days.
But the environmental problems—well, that was another story. That is this story, the one of people working together to solve a problem they did not create but one they did not want to leave for another generation.
As Bill Way mused as he watched one of the youngest attendees enjoy his celebratory luncheon that ribbon-cutting day, “He will have the opportunity to live his whole life here with clean water.”
Let’s hope so.