But paddle it – drink it – fish it, and you know that those 103 miles winding through 10 counties are just as much yours.
Together, we’ve inherited the issue of abandoned mine drainage (AMD). Caused by coal-mining activities centuries ago, it is the most widespread water pollution challenge in Pennsylvania, and its damage extends to our treasured Lehigh River.
What is the History behind Abandoned Mine Drainage?
Coal mining began in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s to support the colonial iron industry. By the 1800s, Pennsylvania coal was fueling the industrial growth of the country.
Coal remained significant well into the 20th century due to the energy needs of both World Wars. For the first 200 years, it was mined without formal regulation and little thought of environmental consequences. When all available coal was extracted from a mine site, operators would move to another and leave the original mine abandoned, failing to remediate the environmental impacts caused by mining.
Why is Abandoned Mine Drainage a Concern?
Over 15 billion tons of coal was removed from Pennsylvania’s ground, and 250,000 acres of mine land were left abandoned. These abandoned mines exist within the Lehigh River watershed, leaking acid, heavy metals and other pollution into nearby creeks that discharge into the Lehigh River. The problem is so big that more than 4,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams are effectively dead — uninhabited by fish or insects — because of this pollution.
Despite these AMD impacts, the Lehigh River remains a valuable natural resource. It supplies drinking water to five municipalities, offers recreation to thousands annually and provides habitat for wildlife and fish. In 1982, a 32-mile section in the northern corridor was designated a Pennsylvania Scenic River.