COAL TOWNSHIP — Northumberland County residents deserve projects that reclaim abandoned mines and stimulate the local economy, according to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey on Friday.

Casey, D-PA, and officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) visited the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area and its nearly completed rock-crawl obstacle course on 88 acres abandoned mine land. The tour highlighted how abandoned mine reclamation projects can benefit local economies and communities.

“The people of this county, the people of this state, deserve these dollars (to reclaim abandoned mines),” said Casey. “These aren’t just a nice thing that government can do over time. People deserve it. This community, the people who worked in these coal mines that became the foundation not just of this region but the entire state, helped us win world wars, helped us build an economy. The people who made those contributions, their forebearers and those that came after them, deserve this kind of investment where we can transform the sites to beneficial use for the future.”

The $9,625,287 million world-class extreme rock obstacle course project, which filled in the abandoned mine pit and water hazards known locally as “The Caves,” is located beyond Bear Valley Road in Coal Township’s Third Patch. Project funding comes from the 2018 Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Economic Revitalization Pilot Program Grant and the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Trust Fund.

Projects like this will continue throughout Pennsylvania thanks to the Infrastructure, Investment, and Jobs Act will provide an additional $244 million for AML reclamation in 2022 alone. Through the efforts of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and funding through the federal AML Reclamation Program, Pennsylvania has been able to reclaim over 91,000 acres of mine land, eliminate more than 1,800 open mine shafts and restore 300 miles of impaired streams, said Casey.

Forty-three out of 67 counties are affected by abandoned coal mines. In Northumberland County, there are nearly 100 abandoned mine land sites, he said.

”Those same Pennsylvanians here in Northumberland County have a right to expect not just that there will be future economic opportunities but future opportunities for tourism and visits,” said Casey. “It’s not simply that. People have a right to live in a community where the air is clean, and the water is clean.”

The abandoned mines in Pennsylvania pose serious health and safety risks and hazards, ranging from dangerous shaft openings to mountainous piles of coal waste to thousands of miles of polluted waterways from acid mine drainage, he said.

‘Mammoth’ obstacle course

The AOAA, which caters to off-road motorized vehicles, hunters, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, is located along Route 125 on more than 8,000 acres of forest and reclaimed coal land in Coal, East Cameron, Mount Carmel, West Cameron and Zerbe townships. The land is mostly owned by Northumberland County with some leased from private landowners and managed by the AOAA Authority. The location of the project is near the Whaleback, a seven-acre geological formation on property adjacent to the AOAA Western Reserve.

When it’s finished, a 6,600-foot stretch known as the Mammoth will be topped with thousands of boulders — a manmade attraction for the AOAA off-road park traversable only by rock-crawling vehicles like specialized Jeeps, trucks and buggies. The obstacle course and trail will be ready for use by Memorial Day, but the grand opening is tentatively scheduled for August or September, said Dave Porzi, the AOAA director of operations.

Official: Abandoned mines ‘a scar’ on Pa. landscape

John Stefanko, the Deputy Secretary for DEP’s Office of Active and Abandoned Mine Operations, said the AOAA is a great example of taking an old AML site and converting it into usable land that includes a jeep trail, a stone parking lot for visitors, a helipad for emergency situations.

“Abandoned mine lands are a scar on Pennsylvania’s landscape, but by reclaiming them and restoring the land, there can be any number of important and productive uses,” said Stefanko. “We’ve seen abandoned mine lands become new office parks, farmlands, solar fields, and, like the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area, new attractions to drive tourism.”

Projects like this are an “economic boom for a local economy that has been depressed because of the loss of the mining industry,” said Stefanko.

John Dawes, executive director for the Foundation for PA Watersheds, said AOAA and the mine reclamation project are “phenomenal” for reclaimed ecosystems that include trees, plant life and wildlife.

”It’s really an opportunity to address pollution, all of the negatives of this legacy of coal,” said Dawes. “We’ll be able to address a majority of it with that amount of money.”

Kathy Vetovich, the president of Shamokin Area Businesses for Economic Revitalization, said Shamokin at one time was booming because of the mining industry.

”Go forward a couple of years after that, maybe not so much,” said Vetovich. “We’ve been in a decline since the 1960s. We deal with blight and with drugs and with all of those small coal town issues. Now there’s a light. The grounds that were so important to coal mining became important to the kids going out with the caves and illegal dumping. The AOAA has turned that all around.”

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