KEMPTON -- Less than two years ago, the swamp near this abandoned coal-mining town at the southern tip of Garrett County was a bright orange, discolored by acid discharges from the coal mine that gave the town its name. Nearby Laurel Run, a tributary of the North Branch of the Potomac River, was dead. No fish, no plants, no bacterial life could survive the acid flowing from the mines.
After a $290,000 reclamation project and continuing treatment programs, the swamp is covered with grass and trees, and fish have started to poke back into the mouth of Laurel Run. It is an example of how far Maryland's efforts to reclaim abandoned mines has come -- and a sign of how far it has to go.
Kempton Mine, which covers more than 2 1/2 times the area of Deep Creek Lake under the Maryland and West Virginia mountains, is the worst contributor to ground-water pollution of the abandoned mines that honeycomb these hills.
If not for an aggressive state environmental program, it would pour 5 million to 6 million gallons of acidic water each day into Laurel Run. The program, which helped restore the North Branch of the Potomac, is "only a Band-Aid," says John E. Carey, director of the state's Bureau of Mines.
"But it's necessary to stop the bleeding" while researchers seek a permanent solution, Carey told a symposium on the North Branch this week at Frostburg State University.
Coal fueled the economy of Western Maryland for nearly 200 years, but as coal seams gave out and the market for coal dropped, many companies walked away from their mines. Local legend has it that officials of Davis Coal and Coke Co., which took about 5.5 million tons of coal from Kempton Mine between 1914 and 1950, closed before telling the miners.
Modern coal companies operate under strict regulations that have all but eliminated acid drainage. Mettiki Mine, the largest deep mine in Maryland, pumps 8 million gallons a day of acidic water through treatment ponds and filters it until it is pure enough to raise trout fingerlings in a pond on its site near Kempton.
"There's a strong environmental ethic here," says Mike Dean, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources who works with Mettiki on the trout program. "Fishing's about the biggest outdoor recreational thing going here. And they live here."
But Davis and other mines left behind an environmental nightmare. Ground water released when miners tap a coal seam becomes so acidic as it flows over coal and pyrite and mixes with oxygen that it kills everything it touches.
In the past five years, state environmental officials have learned to neutralize the water by injecting quantities of limestone as it leaves the old mines.
It's a relatively cheap fix. The state has installed six "dosers," silo-shaped structures that feed limestone into water draining from the mines, at a cost of about $100,000 each and a total annual operating cost of about $72,000, Carey said. But without the dosers, all the progress would be reversed, says Eric Schwaab, director of DNR's fisheries service.
That's why industry, government and local activists have been looking for a more permanent solution. DNR's Power Plant Research Program has been experimenting with reducing acidic runoff by plugging abandoned mines with recycled coal ash. An experiment at the Frazee Mine On Winding Ridge was "very encouraging," says Paul Petzrick of the research program.
"The results at Winding Ridge were sufficiently encouraging that we have the confidence to take on the Kempton Mine Complex," he told the symposium. "I think we have a winner here."
But he and others say Maryland has been given short shrift by the federal government in financing experimental programs. Mine companies pay 35 cents a ton into the federal Abandoned Mines Land Fund, which is to be used to reclaim land and water. Maryland gets $1.5 million of that money, and much of that is slated for land projects, not water.
The fund paid for the Kempton reclamation project. Crews hauled out tons of waste coal and garbage, covered the area with topsoil and lime, and replanted.
The discolored grass on land that is recovering and a few stone foundations a half mile down the road are the only signs of the town that was once here.