Jan 31, 2013

Do the Right Thing

Before I proceed I must remind the reader that this is a blog first and foremost about environmental and natural resource management issues and I am not interested in discussing gun control politics. I'll leave that discussion to those more informed on the issue than I am. Regardless of the policy implications, this statement delivered by former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords (found in full here) gave me pause as a familiar phrase often heard in environmental contexts. 

 "We must do something."

It is a powerful statement because the only thing worse than tragedy is the agonizing feeling of helplessness when there's nothing we can do to make it better. Its only antidote is taking control of our fate and taking action. We do it because we hurt, we do it because we're angry and we do it because doing nothing is cowardly and that is not our nature. There is catharsis in action, but if an issue is important enough to address at all, why do we settle for doing some thing when we should be doing the right thing? Why act if not to solve the problem?

Let's face it, taking action is easy. The harder and better thing to do is to pause and do the research required to ensure that our effort is well spent earning a solution and not simply short term peace of mind.

One of my favorite examples of a hastily written policy with deadly consequences is the law that created dolphin-safe tuna. On the surface, it is such an easy thing to support but as I think you'll find, most policies spear headed by grade school letter writing campaigns have avoidable repercussions though hopefully none with such a colossal failure for conservation. I would argue that hastily crafted climate legislation in the wake of Hurricane Sandy would be just as foolish as passing Amber Alert immediately after a shocking murder or latching on to a plan to distribute rain barrels before seeing if they would have the intended effect.

I'm reminded of the weekend that my Dad taught me how to drive stick shift. He took me out in his Honda Civic hatchback and coached me along the back roads of the Finger Lakes, steering me around the glacial hills of Cayuga county where I could tear his transmission apart in relative privacy. At the end of one very productive afternoon, Dad had me return along Rte 20 where I could finally try out fifth gear and accelerate out of a lighted intersection. I pulled up to the stop line and nervously waited at the red light while a very large and very intimidating pick up truck sidled in behind us. I sized up the bumper in the rear view mirror and listened to the engine rumbling while I rested my hand on the shifter and tried to look calm. When the light turned green I hit the gas too aggressively and stalled. I could sense the frustration and the judgment of the driver behind me and I leapt to start the ignition again only to apply the gas even faster this time. The engine went silent instantly. By the fourth failure the driver behind me gunned the engine and shot past me to escape in the last seconds of the green light.

Having embarrassed myself in front of a stranger, I was now waiting through another red light so that I could try not to embarrass myself in front of my Dad. When the light turned green again, he stopped me. I desperately eyed the green light again and wondered how many seconds it would stay as it was but instead, I was told to take a deep breath. Relax. Leave the engine off for a moment. Don't rush, because rushing will only give you the result you don't want faster. Sometimes the quickest way to get a job done is to go slower and do it right the first time.

Again I want to emphasize that I have nothing but respect for the former Representative and I won't publicly support or criticize her proposed gun plan. I would simply like to express my caution for reactionary legislation. My thoughts are with the Representative, her family and those affected by the Sandyhook tragedy that has accelerated this important public debate. I hope we do the right thing.

Jan 2, 2013

Office or Exhibition?

As tasty as Christmas leftovers are, I also love cleaning up a year's worth of old, unfinished writing. I found this brief piece that I threw together in September but never refined (until now!) so I'm publish retroactively for your reading pleasure. Better late than never, right?
Office of Exhibition?

I’m fairly certain that I could identify a LEED building ranking (silver, gold, platinum) by the smell alone. There’s something about the smell of low VOC plywood, the clean, industrial aesthetic and the faint rumble of highly efficient HVAC systems that is instantly recognizable to me now that I have had the pleasure of touring so many of them. The Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design certification program, officiated by the Green Building Council in Washington DC, has seen several suppliers leap at the opportunity to become dedicated to the exacting standards it sets and as a result, there are many stylistic and structural recurrences in many LEED certified buildings I have had the fortune to visit. LEED demands that architects take into account the source and quality of their materials, the impacts that the building inevitably has on the community, its local water supply and its human environment but there is nothing that says that all LEED buildings must have exposed steel beams and the same smart looking office chairs. That happens on its own. A Spanish company seems to have cornered the market with a ubiquitous deep red stained plywood paneling and carpeting installed in removable squares are simply everywhere the glass and metallic GBC leaf emblem goes.
Welch-Allyn, a manufacturer of medical testing devices and one of the largest employers in my hometown of Skaneateles NY, is rightly pleased about its recent LEED Silver expansion. As a high tech manufacturing center as well as a showpiece facility for wooing corporate customers, the expansion is a unique blend of factory and exhibit hall.

A walkway suspended across a large open space shows off both a row of conference rooms to one side and the factory floor on the other with a spacious and relaxing water feature in the middle. Every tour passes through a high tech space showing off a timeline of the company from its humble roots in Rochester NY at the turn of the century to the medical behemoth it is today, climaxing with mockup hospital rooms to demonstrate their modern products.

Although it is often defended vigorously that LEED is usually no more expensive than its more common industrial alternative, getting LEED certified seems to reflect more on the economic sensibilities of the client rather than their environmental ethic. LEED buildings are designed to show off. Part of the pay off of good design alongside low electric and water demand is good publicity. Showing off a nice green facility and the publicity that it generates is as much a part of the calculus as the price of recycled glass composite countertops and I think it’s wonderful that companies can be rewarded this way by the doing the right thing. In fact, education programs, tours and public engagement all accrue points in LEED certification. The result is that many LEED buildings are a bit more exhibitionist than their more discrete cousins. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing and I certainly don’t think it’s tragic that many LEED buildings seem to converge on certain stylistic points because, like pop music, architecture has changing fads as well. I simply think that the emphasis on display and visitor friendliness seems to imply that these buildings are still curiosities and that despite great progress in the field of green construction, the industry is still in its youth. I can’t wait to see what the next stage will look like.
The main assembly floor becomes a display visible from the overhead catwalk and a nearby food court.

Even offices are on display. Is this a factory or an elaborate display case? What will green architecture look like when it is no longer a novelty to be showed off?

Dec 8, 2012

The Dirty Business of Washing Coal

Coal gets a lot of attention when they pull it out of the ground and when they burn it, but very rarely does the industry get scrutinized by the environmental movement for what happens in between. Until, that is, something really tragic happens like what happened near Lumberport West Virginia in the North Central region of the state. On November 30, a section of embankment at the Robinson Run mine slurry pond collapsed under the weight of two pickup trucks and a bulldozer. The pile of mining refuse collapsed into the water and as of this writing, the bulldozer and its driver are still missing. What is slurry and why did someone die monitoring it?
This photo taken by WVDEP shows the collapsed slurry embankment where a mining employee  disappeared.
Whether the coal comes from underground or from a surface mine, it all has to be processed before it can get shipped and burned in a power plant boiler or in a steel mill blast furnace. No one burns raw coal plucked straight from the seam because raw coal is covered in rock dust, sulfur compounds, metals and silicates that get released when the coal is burned. State and federal laws that govern what can go up the smoke stack (and subsequently into human lungs) encourage power plant operators to buy more expensive coal that is from coal seams where the coal is naturally low in such impurities or the coal can be washed and processed. In the case of Schiller Station operated by Public Services New Hampshire in Newington, air quality regulations such as those in the Clean Air Act are strict enough that the power plant is willing to import low sulfur coal all the way from Venezuela rather than spend time and money washing local coal until it meets their exacting preferences.
Motivated by RGGI, Schiller Station in New Hampshire now burns wood chips and even cocoa husks in addition to coal.
More modern boilers that operate at high efficiencies also require fuel that is low in ash. Ash is made up of whatever impurities in the fuel that doesn't burn up like silicates and trace metals. In the case of steel manufacturing, low impurity coal is essential to producing high quality metal and typically only the finest coal is selected to be "metallurgical grade." It too is carefully scrubbed to ensure nothing gets into the finished product that doesn't belong there.

The process of turning carboniferous rocks into a clean(er), denser, more uniform and efficient fuel is complicated and fraught with its own set of environmental concerns but it is in itself a process that environmentalists should be very excited about. Increasing the cost effectiveness of coal processing that reduces air pollution is something we should all be able to get behind. In October, I was afforded the rare opportunity to tour the inside of a coal prep plant, the factory that turns raw coal pieces into a fine, combustible powder suitable for combustion in a power plant. This so called "Thermal Coal" came from the low sulfur Pocahontas seam in eastern West Virginia in Greenbrier County but I will decline to name the specific mine, company and prep plant depicted in the following images for proprietary reasons.

The coal comes out of the ground here at one of the entrances to the mine. The ceiling is about five and a half feet at the middle, but don't worry about watching your head. This particular opening isn't used by miners but when it is in operation it uses a conveyor system used exclusively for removing coal. 
The raw coal is dumped out of the mine and onto the fuel lot where it waits to be processed.  
This covered conveyor belt brings raw coal from the fuel lot into the prep plant. The plant itself is about six stories tall but it is packed with equipment. I found that I could take very few pictures inside not only because it was dimly lit but because I couldn't walk far enough away from the big machines to take any decent shots. The loud operation made it almost impossible to hear the mining engineer guiding us through and I wondered how anyone could stand to be in this damp, dusty and deafening work environment. As it turns out, the whole operation is monitored from a single office chair in a nicely air conditioned office.

First, the coal is carried by a covered conveyor belt from the fuel lot to the prep plant where anything that isn't coal is removed from the raw product. An electromagnet sweeps over the incoming rock and picks up bits of mining debris, springs and chipped cutting blades that have fallen off of machines. The rest of the steps can get more complicated. Depending on the client, a coal company might spend more or less effort cleaning the coal and getting it to the right sized particle. Older power plants don't mind a few coal chunks while the newer boilers like ultra fine, talcum-powder-like textures and the prep plant operators might do some mixing and matching with equipment to make the product just right. Check out this site to see some very cool equipment schematic diagrams of where everything goes.

In order to separate the coal particles from any non-coal particles like rock bits, the powder gets dumped into a water tank. One of the interesting properties of coal is that it is hydrophobic and tends to resist wetting, while many coal impurities like metals readily dissolve in water and are considered hydrophillic and this property can be used to separate the two. The problem is that coal and rock are both denser than water, so it all sinks. By increasing the density of the water through the addition of magnetite, a naturally magnetic mineral, the water becomes dense enough to cause the coal to float and the rock to sink. For good measure, the mixture is sent through a centrifuge machine where the liquid is shot through a cyclonic vortex that hurls the densest material to the outside and letting the lighter coal collect in the middle. Think of it like those tornado tubes you used to make by taping two liter bottles together. To help the heavy impurities separate out, detergents and flocculents are added and after all of the solids are removed, the detergents are recycled with a clarifier tank like you might see at a water treatment plant. Sometimes this water is injected into abandoned mines to be stored forever, or as it did in 2004 and several other cases, until it eventually leaks into the water supply.

Recycling the magnetite for the next batch, on the other hand is as easy as switching on an electromagnet.

To recover the finest of coal dust, coal residues are pumped into vats with tiny bubbles blown into them, causing the coal to rise to the top on a thin, frothy foam where it is skimmed off and collected as a ridiculously fine, low sulfur powder that is very valuable. And wet.

The coal dust is now scrubbed and pure, but of  it is soaking wet and far heavier than it needs to be. It has the consistency of a coarse, melted slushie and to reduce shipping costs, as much of that moisture as possible has to be removed. To squeeze out the moisture, the coal, which now has the texture of a melted slushie, is forced between two rollers that squeeze the water out. When the coal emerges dewatered, it is a continuous inch-thick sheet that is crumbly like a pancake of wet sand. This end product is unceremoniously dumped onto another fuel lot by a different conveyor belt and watching heavy coal mud slop to the ground is somewhat mesmerizing. 

So the coal gets cleaned of impurities and debris, but where does all of that waste go? While the coal gets dumped into rail cars through a tipple, the wet leftovers, called slurry, just get dumped. The resulting slurry ponds are toxic pools of detergents, metals and whatever else that has been separated out and stored behind dams. The number of active prep plants in the US is 267, of which 75 are in West Virginia. That number has a tendency to change quickly as business ebbs and flows and the plants temporarily shut down and reactivate frequently, but the number of coal slurry impoundments is a broader and more permanent problem that affects 21 states. These 596 impoundments (114 of which are scattered across West Virginia) are persistent risks. Monitoring the site is done frequently by the company and by state and federal inspectors because any movement of the slurry could mean disaster. Unfortunately, criminal penalties and fines don't seem to have many teeth in states where the coal industry is vociferously defended and standards remain low in some respects and far too high in others (on this, more soon).

The most notable was the Buffalo Creek spill that released 130 million gallons of slurry onto 16 towns downstream in 1972, killing dozens. The company got away with paying a $1 million settlement while the state footed a $13 million bill to clean up. The families of the victims received a pittance measured in thousands. For the working class West Virginians in the Southern Coal Fields region, this was just another hard edge to a tough life they had long since gotten used to.

The accident that took a man's life last week won't be the last. Critics point out that solid slurry was unstable and built on a wet, shifting base layer that should never have been allowed to happen, but industry push back to regulation has been gargantuan. Small slurry spills are a regular occurrence throughout Appalachia and Southern Ohio where clean up costs paid by the state vastly exceed the costs to the industry paid in fines. Many of the contaminants like chromium, lead, mercury, arsenic and copper will persist in the area long into the future.

So long as "clean coal" is focused only on reducing the burned emissions, we will always overlook the high cost of washing it before it ever reaches the power plant. We can do better and we should, if not for the sake of the incredible landscape of Wild and Wonderful West Virginia, then the tough people who don't deserve to be buried alive for living in the land they love.

Dec 2, 2012

Charleston's Fly-In Strip Mine Tour

I don't bore my readers with every day trip I go on, but yesterday I visited a place with an interesting applicability to the purpose of this blog. Coonskin State Park in West Virginia is a lovely urban park mere minutes from downtown Charleston. There's a conference center and head quarters, athletic fields, some season decorations and a number of hiking trails that summit the hills that isolate this park from the nearby urban center. From this vantage point, the visitor can see exactly how close they are to Yeager Airport, named for famed test pilot Chuck Yeager who was born in Myra, West Virginia. It happens to be a very strange airport, indeed and an very unusual place to go for a hike.

West Virginia is a lumpy place. It is the US state with the highest mean elevation East of the Mississippi river and it is well covered by steep slopes, countless hills and mountains and very, very few flat surfaces that aren't in a river flood plain. The city of Charleston, the capitol and largest urban area in West Virginia, needed an airport, but since the flat area near the Kanawha River that flows through downtown was already taken up by neighborhoods, builders looked to the nearby mountains. There, surface mining for coal had already leveled the top off of a mountain that created a tabletop surface on which to install two runways at 910 feet above sea level.

For more incredible images like this, check out the Yeager Airport Facebook page and look at their albums.

Because Charleston isn't a very big city, most of the commercial airliners are pretty small, so the airport's small size wasn't a big problem. The airport's artificial plateau is so small, however, there's not enough room for the lights that usually extend beyond the runway to guide pilots in. Instead, a long girder with vertical support columns were added to give pilots a longer target for night landings on either side of the main strip. For a little added protection, the ends of the runway are made from an Engineered Material Arresting System which helps keep planes from rolling off the edge of the mountain in a manner similar to a runaway truck ramp.

Because Yeager Airport also is home to Charleston's Air National Guard Base, nine C-130 Hercules transports and the Air National Guard's 130th Airlift Wing and an Air Mobility COmmand unit of the West Virginia Air National Guard, some much, much larger aircraft use this harrowing landing strip, including the Boeing 747 called Air Force One (whenever the president is actually in it). It is not uncommon to see a blue airliner with a presidential seal practice touch-and-gos on this challenging runway which is about 350 miles from Andrew's Air Force Base in Washington DC. As you might imagine, your ability to watch the planes from the park is somewhat limited during these exercises. C-5s are a different matter, though.

The vantage point from Coonskin State Park looks like this:

My reaction to watching takeoffs and landings looked like this:

The point here of course, is that flat ground to build infrastructure is very scarce in West Virginia, particularly the farther south one goes. Much of the debate around Mountain Top Removal (MTR) mining that originates from out of state tends to forget that many West Virginians are thankful for any activity that results in sites appropriate for development. Of course coal comes with a high cost, but there are some pretty big benefits for West Virginia residents. If you intend to tour the coal country protesting MTR or surface mining with a minimum of irony, best not fly in to Yeager Airport.

Oct 25, 2012

Pick-Up-Truck Chemistry

Here you go Anna, I made these videos and wrote this up just for you. I posted it because I figure there might be more environmental educators or simply curious citizens who wanted to know some more about the chemistry of Acid Rock Drainage and a little about the science goes on at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.  Last week I had the privilege of tagging along with a WVDEP chemist and we did a few pickup-truck-bed-experiments to check on the progress of some mine sites that we monitor. It's a little fast and my phone didn’t give me enough footage to really edit into something Bill Nye quality but I have some pretty dramatic videos of what happens in the field on a regular basis. For privacy reasons, the location of the sample and the identity of the speaker should remain anonymous.
Warning! Gratuitous Chemistry!

Coal is just carbon. Plain old, harmless carbon of which most of your body is made. The rocks that are typically found deposited near coal, on the other hand, can do some pretty serious environmental damage when disturbed. Underground coal mines and the exposed piles of crushed waste rock left over from mining (which you can read more about in my previous article) are often loaded with pyrite, or fool’s gold which is named for its metallic yellow luster. Chemically, it is ferrous sulfate (FeSO4) which has the nasty tendency to dissolve into sulfuric acid when it contacts water and oxygen from the atmosphere. When mining activity exposes rock to the air and the rainwater that percolates underground, the water becomes highly acidic- sometimes with pH readings lower than 1. A big problem with acids is that they are exceptional solvents, which means that the acidic water is now very good at dissolving minerals from the rock and carrying them downhill, turning mine waste piles into giant wet tea bags that leach out water loaded down with iron, aluminum, manganese, selenium and other trace metals. The acidic, metal-laden effluent flows underground until it is forced to the surface on hillsides or streams. This is called Acid Rock Drainage though you may see the older term Acid Mine Drainage which fell out of vogue since you don’t need a mine to mix sulfur-bearing minerals with oxygen and water and acid drainage can occur even during highway projects if the geology is right like it is in the Anthracite Coal region of Pennsylvania.
The deep vertical cuts in the rock (left) are holes drilled to insert explosives and expose the coal seam underneath it. The exposed rock will often produce ARD which can collect and form orange-brown streams (right)
No matter how it is formed, the water that emerges usually looks normal. The water is clear because the metals are dissolved and invisible just like the common and important minerals that you can find in clean drinking water. As the ARD is diluted with fresh water or runs over minerals like limestone that neutralizes the acidity, the water loses its ability to hold on to all that dissolved stuff.
Those minerals then start to precipitate, or fall out of solution and they rain down on the bottom of streams. Iron is the most common and conspicuous precipitate and when it comes out of solution it either turns blue in the absence of oxygen or it turns red in its presence. That’s because there are two types of iron that we're concerned with here: the blue, reduced form called feric iron (Fe II) and the more familiar red oxidized ferrous iron (Fe III) that we more commonly call rust. Oxygen has a tendency to rip electrons away from other elements so if there is an abundance of oxygen, many electrons are ripped away which oxidizes the iron and makes it more positively charged. Less oxygen means the iron keeps more electrons and is less positively charged (but still positive!). The roman numerals just indicate how positive the ion is, or how many electrons the iron needs to pick up before it is neutrally charged and has the same number of protons as electrons. The charge of the iron ions affect not just its color but also a number of important other properties that relate to how well it separates from the water column or binds to stones to form an “armor.” Suffice to say, water treatment demands we let the stuff settle out and form ferrous iron (the rusty kind). In mine water reclamation there may be a pond filling up with ARD and in the deeper, lower oxygen environment of the pond, the bottom is covered with bluish black ferric iron, but in the shallows or near a babbling stream, the bottom has a red, fuzzy-looking coating of the ferrous iron. This explains the pretty colors and why almost all ARD in streams is orange. Now, iron isn't toxic but if there is enough of it, it can coat the bottom of streams with rust that smothers every living thing on the stream bottom where benthic insects, the foundation of the food web, call their home. It's a great way to ruin a nice trout stream very, very quickly. It isn’t uncommon to find streams in the backwoods of Appalachia that have a bright orange blanket of goo on top of the sediment marking another section of stream that won’t support a valuable trout fishery or help provide people with clean drinking water. 

In light of these problems, the state of West Virginia and the US Federal Government have a set of standards for how acidic the water can be and how much iron and aluminum it is allowed to carry as it flows out of mining properties. The WVDEP works to enforce these standards and even takes complete control of cleanup efforts of centuries-old abandoned mines as well as more recent cases where a company has gone bankrupt or run out of money to clean up after itself. The DEP has a to-do list a mile long.

So how does DEP go about rehabilitating an acidic, orange mess into a clean, clear river? The key is to neutralize the water enough that it dumps all of its metals into a pond before the water can enter the environment. Digging a pond acts as a reservoir to collect all of the ARD so it has plenty of time to settle out, oxygenate and let wild iron-eating bacteria help to adjust the chemistry back to normal. With enough time, this is often plenty to bring the water back into compliance. Because all it takes is a strategically located hole with some engineered drainages, we call this 
Passive Treatment, but each site is different and some need more help.
Adding baffles to the pond (like at right) help to keep the water still and promotes settling out of suspended particles. In this pond, you can see how newly contaminated water in the front starts to improve as it has longer to settle out.
Active Treatment might entail forcing the water through a channel filled with limestone cobbles or adding powdered calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to neutralize the acid in one go. DEP sometimes has to install the aptly named AquaFix units which are giant hoppers full of calcium carbonate or sodium hydroxide which automatically add chemicals to the water to the stream flow. By adding a base (high OH-) to an acid (H+) you end up creating a lot of water (H2O) and if you do it right by adding the perfect amount, acid and base annihilate each other leaving only a harmless sludge of iron oxide, calcium and some residual salts. 

Sodium hydroxide drips into the ARD effluent.
When the sludge gets too thick in the pond, it gets shoveled out and dumped into a sludge pond (a hole in the ground) where it is stored or sometimes collected for use as a safe soil amendment for farmers who want to naturally adjust the acidity of their soil. Some enterprising individuals are trying to sell it to the pigment industry where iron oxide is used in ceramics and crazy educational activities.

The AquaFix uses a water wheel (left) to measure water volume and dispenses the right amount of CaCO3.
All this time I’ve focused on iron because it is more visible and is more common but taking care of aluminum is just as important. It’s also more complicated. Unlike iron, aluminum is actually toxic when it is dissolved in the water and unlike iron, it doesn’t just fall out of the water when the acidity is neutralized. To get aluminum out of acidic water we have to use sodium hydroxide (also called lye or NaOH) which is a much stronger base. If you've ever seen Fight Club, you know it is a VERY strong base that can cause severe, lip-print shaped burns and is used in the production of soap. The sodium hydroxide is used to neutralize the acid but then even more is added to bring the pH up to around 9. At that point, the aluminum can settle out but the water is now too basic to let down stream so it gets treated again until it ends up back down to a nice, neutral 7 for discharge.

Suspended aluminum reflects sky, creating a weird blue/green
Getting the metals out on the lab bench would be a simple matter of measurement in a few beakers, a few quick calculations and an easy titration with a pipette. Getting the chemistry right in the real world is much trickier with stream flows changing with the weather, erosion, and complicated geologic and hydrologic processes. Treatment takes frequent monitoring and often a bit of tweaking.
If we add too little base, we don’t do our job and the acid flows into the stream to dump its iron and aluminum in the environment. If we overdo it we risk wasting expensive treatment chemicals and even making the treatment pond too basic which has its own set of environmental problems. Here are some videos of a DEP officer and me conducting a test to figure out how acidic an ARD site is and how much metal is in it- figures we can use to determine how much of which chemicals we’ll have to add to the water to bring it to acceptable levels.

Can you read the display? Holy Crap!

In the photo on the far right you can see that the excess calcium carbonate has precipitated on the right while iron oxide from the ARD precipitates on the left. This is a classic example of overtreatment and the water here is incredibly basic, giving the water some interesting properties. For one thing, the iron becomes almost gelatinous and you can even see the trails of frogs and stream flows etched into the water like a jello mold.

A Quick Recap on pH

Are you following me with this pH business? If you've already got it figured out, you won't miss anything by skipping ahead, this is just here if you need a quick chemistry reboot.
pH is simply the ratio of hydrogen ions (H+) to hydroxide ions (OH-) in a solution. As the ratio tips in favor of H+, the solution becomes more acidic and the solution gets better at dissolving other substances. It's why a chunk of bread doesn't last very long in your stomach before it gets broken down and dissolved. If the solution has more OH-, the solution is called basic, or alkaline and it tends to be corrosive or caustic.

We measure acidity by measuring the ratio of H+ to OH- and we call it pH (think "proportion of H+"). The pH scale goes from 0, most acidic to 14, most basic with a neutral 7 in the middle being neither neutral nor basic. To be technical, the pH scale is a negative logarithm of hydrogen ions, or in other words, 0 has a very high concentration of positively charged hydrogen ions (H+) and very few hydroxide (OH-) ions while 14 has a very high concentration of OH- and a very low concentration of H+. A pH of 7 means that there is the same number of H+ and OH- in solution as is the case with pure water. The logarithmic part means that the scale slides by powers of ten; a pH of 3 is actually TEN TIMES more acidic than a 4 and a 9 is TEN TIMES more basic than an 8. You got it all? Good, now try and follow along with this cool field test.

Doing science like this in a controlled environment would be relatively straight forward, but our lab bench looks like this:

videoThis is science at the quick and dirty end of the spectrum. We start with a sample of highly acidic mine waste water. This sample started off with a pH around 3.1, which is solidly in stomach acid territory. We then add sodium hydroxide which, as you recall, is a very strong base. Here, we actually want to overpower the acid and make the whole sample so basic that the aluminum and iron can't stay dissolved in the water anymore. They precipitate out of the water and become a suspension, which is a bunch of tiny free-floating particles that float around for a while until they sink. Once they sink, you have clear water on the top with no dissolved minerals in it. Because we’ve added so much sodium hydroxide, it's still very basic.

The blue stuff on the bottom is suspended reduced ferric iron that has fallen out of solution and is now sinking to the bottom. The clear layer on top is just basic water. If given enough time, the blue iron would oxidize and turn orange.

If we’ve added enough base, we can suck up some water in a syringe and filter out all of the solid particles that have fallen out of solution and leave no dissolved metals remaining. We can test to see if any metals remain in solution by putting the water in a machine called a colorimeter which shines a light on the sample and measures what color the light is when it comes out the other side. Pure water should be clear but if any dissolved metals remain, the water will have a tint that the colorimeter can detect. If everything has been done right, the colorimeter should read zero, showing pure, clean water.

videoSo now we have water on the top without any dissolved minerals in it. None. Some of the minerals, like calcium and magnesium, are actually super important to buffer against changes in acidity. Buffering is the ability to soak up extra H+ or OH- ions, that is, the more calcium and magnesium is in the water, the more acid or base you need to add to the water to change its pH. By getting rid of all of the minerals, we have eliminated the iron and aluminum just like we wanted but we also made the water vulnerable to changes in pH that might occur from smaller ARD sources downstream. If we have done our chemistry right, however, we should have a very good idea how much sodium hydroxide we’ll need to treat the water without stripping it of its ability to resist chemical changes in the future. DEP has to treat the water but not treat it too much. Through decades of experience, the DEP now takes pride in treating some of the worst drainage runoff and discharging it later even more pure than the streams it flows into.
Keeping West Virginia 'Wild and Wonderful' is just the name of the game.

Oct 17, 2012


Rest assured that I've been busy and doing cool stuff. Rest assured in the further understanding that you'll hear about it on a more frequent basis when I'm not living in the battered remains of an old hotel in a deep, wifi-free hole.
While I wait at the DEP for my AutoCAD programs to be installed (I do love working for the government) I thought you might enjoy a brief summary of a field trip I took with the OSM/Americorps members during the Beckley Orientation event last week. All 18 OSM/Americorps piled into two vans and headed off to check out a couple of interesting sites nearby.

In the mining business, there are all sorts of fun and eccentric old-timey vocabulary for different types of mining waste. There's "Overburden" which is the land you have to scrape away to get at the coal seam and the "Under burden" which is the land underneath the coal seam. "Gob" is coal that has been mined but so contaminated with bits of debris as to make it uneconomical to actuallymove off the mountain and try to sell. "Spoil" refers to any big pile of mining waste, so the pictures here can be referred to as a spoil pile consisting of gob and overburden. This is a view from the top of our first site located an hour south of Beckley WV. When the mine was operating, the miners would take their mine waste and rock debris and simply tip it over a cliff. Over time, that pile grew several stories tall and constitutes a very steep and sizeable hill on its own, the top of which is now level with the top of the cliff where it was dumped.

 Now, decades later, this pile of coal refuse, shale and rock debris is a major environmental hazard. Because it is rich in sulfur compounds, mounds like this are great at leaching out Acid Rock Drainage and have a nasty tendency to erode or collapse in land slides. The most dramatic danger though is that the casual hiker might find a beautiful overlook like this and decide to light a campfire on its summit.
On top of a giant mound of low quality coal and mining debris.
That is still very much flammable.
Needless to say, it doesn't often go over very well. Sometimes the whole mound will catch fire, producing carbon monoxide which can sink into the valleys and kill anyone unlucky enough to unwittingly inhale the invisible, deadly fumes. There have been a half dozen such fatalities in West Virginia.

This is a piece of coal from the gob site. It has a huge graphite component to it, so it is very dusty and leaves a mark on your hands. Graphite, as you probably know, is what makes pencil leads mark and not the element lead (Pb). Unfortunately, it doesn't burn with the same qualities as coal and it costs more to process than it would make on the market. To DEP who are assigned to cleaning up the mess, it is worth millions of dollars in expenses paid for by a grossly inadequate $.26 per ton coal tax. Because of the backlog of remediation site from old (pre 1977) mines, this site won't reasonably be remediated for another ten years.

This site was only found by DEP after some area highschoolers made a youtube video of themselves dangerously crawling through abandoned mine shafts. The shafts have been filled with concrete but the rest of the site has a lot of work to do. No one knows exactly how many such sites exist throughout Appalachia.

And how do you fix a giant mound of acidic mining waste? Well, it is just crushed rock afterall- the trick is to contain it in a way that doesn't cause it to leak runoff from rain that will pick up contaminants like aluminum. This is a second site near the town of Mount Hope WV just north of Beckley that has only in the past few years been fully remediated. One way to fix a spoil pile like the one above is to bulldoze it into a series of steps that direct their drainage into treatment ditches and then the whole thing is covered it up with about half of a foot's worth of locally transplanted soil. It ends up like a soil skin graft and very shortly thereafter plants move onto the site. First are grasses and sun-loving species like yellow poplar (Leriodendron tulipifera), then come species (seen at the top of this photo) like locust trees (Rubinia psuedoacacia) and clover which are able to capture atmospheric nitrogen and pump it into the soil which enriches the nutrient poor soil.

See the terrace off to the left of this picture? The middle of the step often has a chunk carved out of it to direct drainage away from local creeks and other water ways. Erosion is a big factor because without established root systems to keep the new soil in place, much of it can get washed away. Because ATVing is very popular in the area, open abandoned mine sites are often damaged and prematurely eroded by the wheels.

When channels that aren't designed get carved into the soil, erosion strips off the top soil and exposes the rock underneath. Hydrologic engineers will have to fix these issues if the site is ever going to be fully reforested. Of course, not everyone thinks that reforestation is possible. Some think that returning a site to its original forest is more damaging than it is worth when one considers how much tree planting can displace and disturb the new soil and how fast grasses can move in. In the southwest region of West Virginia where the hills are so steep and close together, flat space that isn't in a flood zone is a precious commodity and locals will often see spoil piles as opportunities for development in communities that could desperately use the economic activity. The moral of the story: It's complicated and everyone seems to have their own right answer. I'll let you know if I find mine. In the meantime, I'm thinking about all of the tons of rock moved for my electricity.
Special thanks to my tour guides, one from the Charleston OSM office and the other from the Charleston WVDEP. They both do tremendously beneficial environmental work here in this beautiful state but I will omitt their names here at their request.

Oct 6, 2012

Where is Andrew?

The town that I am living in currently was once the second richest city in West Virginia. Thurmond was the proud capital of the New River coal industry and the financial pivot point of the fossil fuel revolution that occurred in this region slightly over a hundred years ago but all that remains of its past glory are a dozen buildings straddling the Chesapeake-Ohio (C&O) railroad. Though plenty of coal can be found along the trails of the New River National River park, Thurmond was built on the railroad, not on the railroad's principle product. Because coal was only a black rock if it couldn't get out of town to lucrative urban markets, the railroad commanded a monopoly of the Appalachian coal supply. They'd buy it up at the mines, transport it to the market and sell it with a substantial markup. Railroad barons got just as rich as coal barons did. Of course, all of the hard work that produced that wealth was done by miners who were exploited on a colossal scale. The town of Matewan on the Southern edge of West Virginia was the site of a famous union-company battle that resulted in several deaths, including that of a sheriff (a member of the Hatfield clan) who was shot on the courthouse steps. Due to his having favored the unions, he was never prosecuted by a judge who was bought off by the coal company. The scandal became the subject of the movie Matewan starring Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones and in fact, the movie was filmed in the restored town of Thurmond.

The Park Service staff house I live in is just across the New River and it stands on the site of what used to be the swanky Dun Glen hotel reserved for lascivious enterprises deemed too risqué for the respectable downtown which was officially dry. Across the river in the area surrounding the Dun Glen, an abundance of free flowing cash ensured that Thurmond quickly gained a reputation for cards, booze and women. Dun Glen itself was known to have fresh fish and oysters brought in by rail every day to satisfy affluent clientele and it is also said that the longest running card game in history took place here, lasting fourteen years until the hotel burned down under mysterious circumstances in 1930. Eyebrows were raised when it was revealed that the billiard table somehow escaped the blaze. At one time, you would never have seen a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
Untitled Poem
by Captain H W Doolittle, a conductor on the C&O Railway 1902

You have heard of the California gold rush,
Way back in forty-nine,
But Thurmond on New River
Will beat it every time.

There’s people here from everywhere,
The colored and the white.
Some mother’s son bites the dust
Almost every night

On paydays they come to Thurmond
With a goodly roll of bills
Some gamblers get their dough
And then sneak back to the hills

Some though ne’er return alas,
And they meet a thug
We find them on the railroad track
Or in the Thurmond jug.

Where handy is the black jack
And the price of life is low,
At Thurmond on New River
Along the C&O
Where men are often missing,
After the drinkers’ fight.
And the crime laid on the river,
And the trains that pass at night.
Today, the town of Thurmond has (depending on who you ask) only about seven permanent residents. I had dinner with the mayor, a long time resident, and realized that the town could assemble at a single dinner table. A two-thirds majority would take just five people. After a peak population of about 450 residents in the 1920s, Thurmond became a ghost town by the 1950s.

 The coal railway is still in use and can be heard about every hour. The much more seldom passenger line for Amtrak still connects passengers to New York City, Washington DC and Chicago. I've been told that Amtrak employees are very hesitant to let people out at Thurmond. Are you sure this is where you want to get off? Of course, traffic for mountain bikers, rafters and the occasional ghost hunter is still pretty high even in the off season.

I moved in to this place this past weekend where I’ll be staying until I find some place that isn’t in the basin of a gorge separated from the rest of the world by seven miles of undulating, terrifyingly narrow roads.  Falling walnuts bombard the thin walls and thinner roof giving one the impression I live under a bowling alley and the site is isolated from route 19 by eight miles of twisted, lane-and-a-half-wide roads. Despite the beautiful scenery and friendly neighbors, I still have good motivation to hit the town and find myself a better place. Stay tuned for more information about my job, coal mining and the environmental impacts of the industry. In the meantime, I'm going to go for another hike and make biscuits. I have my priorities in order.