November 13, 2006

Polluted Waterways of Western Maryland

The coal industry has always been a big provider in Western Maryland. Right across the street from my apartment complex is a winding road up the mountain to several active blast sites. There are still old mine tunnels under the campus.

Acid mine drainage is a huge problem up here. Many of the streams are nearly decimated, so clogged with iron and sulfur that only the most hardy of algae can survive.

We recently surveyed about eight miles of waterways, from the Hoffman boil (also called a blow, where water flows through excavated mine areas due to changes in pressure) to a sewage treatment plant.

The Hoffman Boil

The Boil flows down an incline, coloring the stream bed bright orange from elevated levels of dissolved sulfates and iron compounds.

About 100 ft. down, Hoffman meets Vale Summit, a healthy stream.

Vale Summit (bottom) meets Hoffman (top)

You can immediately see the vast differences in coloration between the two streams. Hoffman has almost 900% of the normal iron levels (3.2 mg/L v. 0.4 mg/L) for a healthy stream, and over 350% of the sulfates (400 mg/L v. 125 mg/L).

As a result of the pollution, Hoffman is more acidic and contains less dissolved oxygen, both important factors in supporting aquatic life.

In fact, the only organisms found in Hoffman were hardy algae (and probably bacteria); in Vale, we found indicators of a healthy stream under every rock (caddisfly, stonefly and mayfly larvae, black-nosed dace, etc.).

The Hoffman Boil spills into the watershed, elevating levels of pollution not only at one point, but throughout the system.

The point? Pollution is prolific no matter the area. Western Maryland is very rural. We're surrounded by natural lands, and yet there is still the touch of human carelessness.


  1. Anonymous11:32 AM

    Wow, that water looks awful! We don't have any coal mining here, our main problem is agricultural pollution--I haven't seen any water that looks that bad in Alabama.

  2. Anonymous11:27 AM

    I recently have moved to Allegany County in Maryland and did not know how devastating the coal industry has been and still is to this day. I know that coal mining has been a big part of the culture here, but it has got to change. The environment is being destroyed every step of the way...when mining for it we are destroying the streams and habitat for wildlife...we are ripping the tops off of mountains and dumping them into the nearby streams that cannot handle it (not to mention the stripped mountains are ugly...the mining is destroying what was a beautiful landscape)...and when burning the coal we are adding tons of carbon dioxide to our atmosphere. Of course the money talks and that seems to be the only thing that politicians concentrate on. P U...what smells like big business?!?!