Mine Water and the Environment

, Volume 29, Issue 3, pp 176–199 | Cite as

Abandoned Mine Drainage in the Swatara Creek Basin, Southern Anthracite Coalfield, Pennsylvania, USA: 1. Stream Water Quality Trends Coinciding with the Return of Fish

  • Charles A. Cravotta III
  • Robin A. Brightbill
  • Michael J. Langland
Technical Article


Acidic mine drainage (AMD) from legacy anthracite mines has contaminated Swatara Creek in eastern Pennsylvania. Intermittently collected base-flow data for 1959–1986 indicate that fish were absent immediately downstream from the mined area where pH ranged from 3.5 to 7.2 and concentrations of sulfate, dissolved iron, and dissolved aluminum were as high as 250, 2.0, and 4.7 mg/L, respectively. However, in the 1990s, fish returned to upper Swatara Creek, coinciding with the implementation of AMD treatment (limestone drains, limestone diversion wells, limestone sand, constructed wetlands) in the watershed. During 1996–2006, as many as 25 species of fish were identified in the reach downstream from the mined area, with base-flow pH from 5.8 to 7.6 and concentrations of sulfate, dissolved iron, and dissolved aluminum as high as 120, 1.2, and 0.43 mg/L, respectively. Several of the fish taxa are intolerant of pollution and low pH, such as river chub (Nocomis micropogon) and longnose dace (Rhinichthys cataractae). Cold-water species such as brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and warm-water species such as rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) varied in predominance depending on stream flow and stream temperature. Storm flow data for 1996–2007 indicated pH, alkalinity, and sulfate concentrations decreased as the stream flow and associated storm-runoff component increased, whereas iron and other metal concentrations were poorly correlated with stream flow because of hysteresis effects (greater metal concentrations during rising stage than falling stage). Prior to 1999, pH < 5.0 was recorded during several storm events; however, since the implementation of AMD treatments, pH has been maintained near neutral. Flow-adjusted trends for 1997–2006 indicated significant increases in calcium; decreases in hydrogen ion, dissolved aluminum, dissolved and total manganese, and total iron; and no change in sulfate or dissolved iron in Swatara Creek immediately downstream from the mined area. The increased pH and calcium from limestone in treatment systems can be important for mitigating toxic effects of dissolved metals. Thus, treatment of AMD during the 1990s improved pH buffering, reduced metals transport, and helped to decrease metals toxicity to fish.


Acidification Acid mine drainage Aquatic restoration Fish Metals Storm flow Sulfate 



This research was supported by the PaDEP and the Schuylkill Conservation District with funding through the US EPA Non-point Point Source National Monitoring Program, the US DOE, and the USGS Cooperative Water-Resources Program. The first author is grateful to Roger J. Hornberger and Daniel J. Koury of PaDEP for their sustained support. Jeffrey J. Chaplin, Emily Eggler, Heather Eggleston, Katherine Tuers Brayton, Suzanne J. Ward, Jeffrey B. Weitzel, Kovaldas “KB” Balciauskas, Michael D. Bilger, and John Rote, presently or formerly at USGS, are acknowledged for critical assistance with field work and data processing. Although many individuals assisted during annual fish surveys, Robert Schott of PaDEP warrants special thanks for providing vital expertise and equipment for fish capture and identification during several years of the study. The authors also wish to acknowledge constructive reviews of the manuscript by Kevin J. Breen and Robert Runkel of USGS, John Arway of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, Christopher H. Gammons of Montana Tech, and an anonymous reviewer. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the US Government.


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Copyright information

© US Government 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles A. Cravotta III
    • 1
  • Robin A. Brightbill
    • 1
  • Michael J. Langland
    • 1
  1. 1.USGS PA Water Science CenterNew CumberlandUSA

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