New York Times reports on Vintondale
acid mine drainage project
Letter No. 226 | January 31, 2001
I have an original copy of the article that was in the New York Times last week. The daughter of a friend at church sent it to them and they gave it to me. It even has colored pictures. I told Bill (George) about it and he sent this to me.
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Tuesday, January 30, 2001 6:50 PM
Subject: NYTimes.com Article: Slag Heaps Into Gardens
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> > Slag Heaps Into Gardens
> > January 18, 2001
> HUMAN NATURE
> By ANNE RAVER
> > VINTONDALE, Pa.
> JULIE BARGMANN almost missed the turn to this old mining town in
> southwest Pennsylvania, because she was deep into the story of
> these coal-rich Appalachian hills, where miners gave their lives to
> dig out the coal that made the coke that fired the steel plants in
> Pittsburgh and Detroit.
> > Now Ms. Bargmann, a sculptor and landscape architect, turned down
> the steep hill leading through town, where most of the narrow
> wooden houses were built by the Vinton Colliery, when it opened the
> mine in 1906 across the Blacklick Creek. The town looked deserted,
> except for a few mutts barking at the end of short chains. There
> were boarded-up houses, empty stores, like ghosts of a population
> that dropped from 2,500 to 600 after the mine closed in 1963.
> > When the coal gave out, the company abandoned the site, leaving
> half a mile of coke ovens to decay on the flood plain, mounds of
> coal waste and a steady stream of acid drainage flowing into the creek.
> > "The Blacklick pours into the Conemaugh River watershed, which
> flows straight to the Gulf of Mexico," Ms. Bargmann said, steering
> her rented Blazer over the icy bridge across the creek. "There are
> 3,400 miles of polluted waterways in Pennsylvania alone."
>> Ms. Bargmann, 42, is one of a new generation of landscape
> architects teaming up with scientists and historians, artists and
> architects to reclaim wastelands without erasing history. They
> don't believe in walling them off or leveling the slag heaps that
> tell the story of America's industrial past.
>> A popular lecturer who sometimes makes her points in a hard hat
> and decontamination suit - a kooky contrast to her ultra blond hair
> and jet black eyeleashes - she throws her landscape architecture
> students from the University of Virginia at Superfund sites and
> landfills, encouraging them to map the flow of contaminants and to
> work with natural systems to regenerate earth and water. These
> wastelands - 1,200 Superfund sites and 600,000 brownfields - are
> the new frontier, a wilderness of steel mills and coal mines, oil
> refineries and plastics factories, waiting to be reclaimed.
>> "The scale of these landscapes is up there with Le Nôtre's
> Versailles and dead Fred's Central Park," Ms. Bargmann said,
> tweaking Frederick Law Olmsted for his artificial wilderness.
>> The new park makers aren't interested in fake pastoral scenes.
> They see the old blast furnaces and conveyor belts as the new bones
> of the garden of memory. They use plants to absorb and break down
> toxins, eventually creating clean soil and water. And they don't
> cover up the treatment ponds or hide the outflow pipes.
> "Landscape architecture is the most significant form of public art
> today," said John Beardsley, an art historian at Harvard's Graduate
> School of Design. "It has both the artistic and the technical tools
> to deal with problems of enormous magnitude, like restoring the
> industrial landscape."
> Mr. Beardsley considers Ms. Bargmann "among the most forceful
> advocates for this kind of work in the U.S."
> Now, she leaned into the wind tearing along the Blacklick and
> trudged down the Ghost Rail Trail, where the Pennsylvania Railroad
> once transported coke to Pittsburgh. She was meeting other members
> of the design team that has been working for five years,
> practically pro bono, to turn this polluted 35-acre flood plain
> into a natural treatment system that will be the centerpiece for a
> community park.
> The project is the brainchild of Dr. T. Allan Comp, a historian
> working for the Office of Surface Mining in the Interior
> Department, who has a vision of building parks throughout
> Appalachia and has raised $400,000 to make it work.
> "This was the entrance to Mine No. 6," Ms. Bargmann said, halting
> by a slight depression in a hill that rises alongside the trail.
> "There were six hills with six mines, each given a number." Now it
> was just a ghost of a door, with a wash of yellow grit running
> toward the creek.
> "That's yellow boy," she said. "It's the goo that precipitates out
> of the acid mine drainage." It will be remembered in a path called
> the Yellow Boy Channel, flanked with a path of aspens, which turn
> gold in the fall, and a wide band of goldenrod.
> The design team had gathered on a tall pile of bony - the nickname
> for hard chunks of black coal waste - to get a good look at the
> recent excavation work below. A bulldozer had dug through 12 feet
> of buried bony to sculpture a chain of six trapezoid- shape
> treatment ponds for breaking down the acid drainage that still
> flows out of these hills. Acid mine drainage is formed when rain
> and groundwater absorb the metals and compounds disturbed by mining.
> It won't eat your finger off; it's about as acid as vinegar. "But
> it acts as an exfoliate, and it'll take the top layer of your skin
> off," said Robert Deason, the team's geologist. It will also
> dissolve other metals like magnesium, manganese and aluminum.
> Mr. Deason has designed a series of ponds and limestone spillways
> to aerate the water and raise its pH from acid to alkaline until
> the dissolved metals drop out. Then the water will be channeled
> into a wetland, where bacteria proliferating among the roots of
> cattails and sedges will feast on its sulfur, and it will be sent
> back into the Blacklick Creek as cleansed water.
> Such biological treatment systems are self-sustaining and cheaper
> than chemical treatment, and they provide a welcome habitat for
> wildlife. Though slow to catch on in this country, they are being
> considered at sites like the 3,000-acre Fresh Kills Landfill on
> Staten Island, the biggest garbage dump in the world, and at the
> 1,100-acre River Rouge complex, owned by the Ford Motor Company and
> Rouge Steel, where the architect William McDonough has been
> commissioned to build a new "green" assembly plant in a sustainable landscape.
> As soon as he got the job, in November 1999, Mr. McDonough
> assembled a team of engineers, scientists and designers, including
> Ms. Bargmann, to develop a working landscape for the site. Rain and
> snow won't be shunted directly into sewer lines, but absorbed by a
> 12-acre roof covered with native plants. Wetlands and hedgerows
> planted with native trees, shrubs and grasses will filter the overflow.
> "As architects, we feel the time has come to immediately engage
> with landscape architects the day we talk about design," Mr.
> McDonough said. "They should not just come in at the end and shrub
> it up."
> Such complex sites call for the collaboration of many minds.
> Dr. Clayton Rugh, a scientist from Michigan State University, is
> testing the ability of native plants to break down contaminants in
> soil dug from the defunct coke ovens at the Rouge. Ms. Bargmann
> envisions those ovens as the walls of a post-industrial-age garden,
> where plants transform polluted earth into soil teeming with earthworms.
> Here in Vintondale, she and Stacy Levy, a sculptor trained in
> forestry, have been inspired by Mr. Deason's treatment ponds to
> design a litmus garden, which parallels the changing colors of the
> treatment ponds. Scarlet sugar maples and sweet gums will flank the
> orange waters of the most acidic pond, followed by yellow aspens
> and tulip poplars as the pH rises and finally by blue- green
> sycamores as the water clears.
> In the marshes, once home to 152 coke ovens, a raised plinth will
> memorialize them, full of flaming red flora: red-twigged dogwood,
> chokecherry and blueberry. "People talk about how they smelled, how
> acrid smoke hung over the town," Ms. Levy said. "Now it's just a
> peaceful field. But it used to be this clanking, cranking landscape."
> The whistle blew at 7 a.m., and 600 men - the first of three
> shifts a day - went down to the Blacklick Creek and got on rail
> cars that took them five miles into the mountain. "The cars went at
> breakneck speed," said John Malloy, 77, who broke a collarbone and
> two ribs when a rail car lost its brakes. "You pushed your car into
> a seam that was only 42 inches high and started hand-loading. We
> got paid 87 cents a ton. They cheated the daylights out of you."
> When the mines were flushed of water, the Blacklick flowed yellow,
> and the sulphur could turn a swimmer's hair orange. People threw
> their dogs into the creek to kill the fleas.
> When the mine closed in 1963, it left coke ovens, mounds of bony,
> the washery and network of rails. "It looked far worse in the
> 1970's," Mr. Deason said. "All black, with old fallen- down
> buildings. So the state came in and knocked them down, dug a big
> hole and buried it all." Mine tailings were spread over the site,
> and the area was planted with grass.
> "It was better for the overall look of the place, but it was a bit
> of a tragedy because all the history of the site was buried," Mr.
> Deason said. "That's what we're about."
> Dr. Comp of the Interior Department recalls the pride in coal
> country when miners produced the coal and coke that forged the
> steel of a new economy. Between the 1890's and the 1940's there was
> little thought of the environment. "Then there was this complete
> sense of abandonment, if not shame, in the coal economy after World
> War II," he said. "We're trying to shift from this legacy of
> pollution back to an older sense of family and neighborhood and
> The mine was the economic heart of Vintondale. "To give it
> presence gives history back," he said. "So these guys could walk
> through here and say, `That's the washery where I worked as a kid,'
> or, `That's the powerhouse where I lost a finger.' "
> These days, 76,000 people a year ride or hike the 12-mile Ghost
> Town Trail on the banks of the Blacklick, and in the fall these
> hills are a blaze of color. But if you know mining, you know what
> lies beneath.
> "Anthills," said Ms. Bargmann, who has pored over every seam and
> tunnel of the mining maps. "Miles of tunnels, some dead men and
> boys. And a lot of polluted water."
> So this park is a requiem to the miners and to the defiled land.
> But it's also a celebration of the healing powers of nature.
> Ms. Bargmann narrowed her eyes at the earthworks taking shape in
> the flood plain. "We want to keep those spillways low, so we have a
> long vista," she said.
> Make the process visible, and make it beautiful.
> > Visit NYTimes.com for complete access to the
> most authoritative news coverage on the Web,
> updated throughout the day.
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Webmaster's note: A visit to the NYTimes website is worth the time to see the color photos. Visitors must register, but it's free, and immediately after completing the process, access to the article linked is provided. HISTORY FOOTNOTE: Does anyone remember coal or coke from Blacklick Valley going to Pittsburgh or Detroit? (Major steel mills in Detroit?) Local historian Denise Duzsa Weber reports that Vintondale coal typically went to Lackawanna Steel in Buffalo, New York (Lackawanna played a part in the development of the Vintondale coalfields). Nanty Glo's main mine (Heisley/Bethlehem) served Johnstown plants...perhaps Twin Rocks and/or Cardiff, or previous mines in Nanty Glo, like Springfield or Webster, shipped coal to Pittsburgh?jk
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