Civil engineering undergrads develop mine water treatment plant for PaDEP

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- According to the Schuylkill Action Network, the Schuylkill River and its tributaries provide drinking water to more than 1.5 million Pennsylvania residents and habitats for both fish and wildlife. It’s also being actively polluted.

Two abandoned coalmines in Minersville — the Oak Hill Collieries and the Pine Knot Complex — are releasing thousands of gallons of contaminated water into the river each minute.

In fact, during severe drought, “these two discharges are the Schuylkill River,” said environmental engineering professor William Burgos. “They make up something like 80 to 90 percent of what’s called the base flow.”

Not only do these discharges violate the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (PaDEP) Clean Streams Law, which was established in 1937 to “preserve and improve the purity of the waters of the commonwealth,” but they are detrimental to aquatic life, impact water quality for downstream users and cost Pennsylvania money in lost recreational tourism revenue as well.

To combat this pollution problem, Penn State civil engineering undergraduate students helped the PaDEP develop what will become the largest mine water treatment facility in the state.

“It’s an ambitious project for undergrads,” Burgos said. “They’re basically designing a complete and enormous water treatment facility.”

Since 2007, Burgos has researched the remediation of acid mine drainage, which is associated with coal mining activities in Pennsylvania, and has worked with the Schuylkill Headwaters Association (SHA) in an effort to find the most effective ways to treat the drainage, which can be deadly to animals and plants.

The SHA first identified the Oak Hill Collieries and the Pine Knot Complex as the two main sources of acid mine drainage flowing into the Schuylkill River, Burgos said.

“You have these big underground mining complexes, these underground tunnels and shafts, that eventually become flooded,” Burgos explained. The flooding is what causes the drainage.

He said the major source of pollution in this drainage is pyrite, an iron sulfide, which, when exposed to water and air, basically produces sulfuric acid. When the abandoned sites flood, the contaminated water finds its way to the surface and flows into the Schuylkill River.

To eradicate this pollution before it reaches the river, the PaDEP wants to build a water treatment facility.

“These two drainages are the single largest sources of acid mine drainage to the Schuylkill River,” Burgos said. “So if we can treat these, we can help a whole lot of people downstream.”

These people downstream include the residents of the largest city in the state, Philadelphia, as well as all the towns along the approximately 130-mile stretch between the abandoned coalmines and the city, most of which receive drinking water from the contaminated river.

This is where Burgos’s Civil Engineering 472W class comes into play. The class is providing the PaDEP with free engineering consulting services in exchange for a one-of-a-kind experience designing a real and very complicated, large-scale mine water treatment plant.

“When built, it will be the largest, by far, in Pennsylvania,” Burgos said.

To prepare, the students visited multiple mine water treatment plants around Pennsylvania including one in Rausch Creek, Schuylkill County and one in Hollywood, Clearfield County. They used this information, along with the knowledge they have gathered in their civil engineering courses, to create their design.

The project was then broken down into seven parts: water collection, aeration, oxidation of ferrous iron (two parts), removal of ferric iron solids (two parts) and sludge disposal.

Four students were assigned to each of the seven parts. Each design team then researched the best way to build their section of the facility. Afterward, the students in each team were assigned to one of four design firms with an expert from each group going to a different firm. The firms put all the pieces together to create a complete facility.

In the end, four comprehensive proposals were created and will be presented to the PaDEP this spring.

“What we’re really trying to do is inform the DEP of the benefits and costs,” Burgos said.

Through the different proposals, the PaDEP will be able to see the advantages and disadvantages of different configurations and the varied financial costs of each, so they can make an informed decision about what’s best for them.

Since the PaDEP doesn’t have a deadline for the project to begin, Burgos said he hopes to incorporate proposals from one more class and possibly bring in other engineering disciplines to add more diverse expertise to the project and make the design even better.

“I am extremely proud of my students,” Burgos said. “Their work will have a real-world impact.”

Last Updated February 11, 2015