By Alan Gregory
The Standard-Speaker, © 2004

October 2, 1004

USA – Sprawl, pollution, loss of farmland and tainted runoff from abandoned mines are among the key factors influencing the health of the Lehigh River, according to a thick report released by a Lehigh County-based conservation group.

And six of the eight mine drainage tunnels affecting the quality of the river’s water are in the Hazleton area, the report notes.

Acid mine drainage is just one of several sources of pollution harming the river. Others include tainted runoff from parking lots and roadways and stormwater carrying nutrients off farmland.

Communities and businesses up and down the 103-mile-long river are dependent on the Lehigh, said Tom Kerr, president of the Wildlands Conservancy at Emmaus.

“Our long-term goal is to implement the (restoration) plan, starting right now,” Kerr said.

“It will take all we have – and more – to do it. I said before that this plan is a gift to the community, and indeed it is. There is so much to do, so many needs, that it will take the entire watershed community to complete it.”

The Quakake Tunnel in the Jeansville coal basin sends an average of 5,600 gallons per minute of acid water into Wetzel Creek in Packer Township, while the Hazle Brook overflow in the Hazleton coal basin discharges less than a quarter as much tainted water into Hazle Creek, according to the report.

The discharge from the Buck Mountain No. 2 tunnel contains aluminum and manganese, and represents 7 percent of the acid mine load to the river.

Precipitated iron, or “yellow boy,” from water emanating from the Sandy Run mine drainage tunnel in Carbon County is so concentrated that it stains the bottom of Sandy Run, the receiving creek.

What the report characterizes as a “potent stew” is discharged to Sandy Run by the Owl Hole tunnel near Eckley Miners’ Village. It “contains the highest average level of aluminum concentration of all such discharges entering the Lehigh River.”

Debra Lermitte, director of land conservation and planning for the conservancy, said the “Lehigh River Watershed Conservation Management Plan was submitted in the spring to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the first step toward getting the river placed on the agency’s Rivers Conservation Registry.

“This placement makes the recommendations and management options listed within the plan eligible for consideration for implementation funding by DCNR in the future,” Lermitte said.

Kerr said the conservancy anticipates the agency will act soon on its petition to have the Lehigh placed on the registry.

“I can’t tell you precisely where the registry application is (in the process), but I know it’s pretty close. We’ve done everything we need to do from our side.”

There are 65 other streams already on the rivers registry. The Little Nescopeck Creek, which flows through Butler and Sugarloaf townships before entering the Nescopeck Creek in Sugarloaf, was listed on May 5, 2001, the 26th waterway to enter the registry, DCNR records show.

That stream is polluted by acid mine drainage from the Jeddo Mine Tunnel in Butler.

Streams on the registry are eligible for grants used to develop conservation plans, technical assistance and grants to assist in carrying out water quality monitoring studies, water trail feasibility studies, greenway plans and determining the status of riparian buffer zones.

The 32-mile stretch of the Lehigh between the F.E. Walter Dam and Jim Thorpe already has been designated a Pennsylvania Scenic River.

Flowing through Lehigh Gorge State Park, the river is heavily used for whitewater rafting, kayaking and canoeing and provides economic benefits to recreational business in the Jim Thorpe and White Haven areas.

Additionally, many municipalities, including Hazleton, are permitted to withdraw water from the Lehigh.

Its headwaters are located just north of Gouldsboro in Wayne County. The mouth of the Lehigh – the point where its waters enter the Delaware River, is in Easton.

Among the report’s findings:
# There are 2,006 miles of tributary streams within the Lehigh’s watershed. They include Nesquehoning Creek, Sandy Run, Mauch Chunk Creek and Mud Run, both in Carbon County.
# Only 12 subwatersheds in the Lehigh’s basin have approved stormwater management plans, according to the conservancy’s report. The report also estimates that 5 percent or 74 square miles of the Lehigh watershed are now covered with impervious surfaces, such as roads and parking lots. An estimated 63 percent of the watershed remains in forested cover.
# Fifty-five of the 108 municipalities in the watershed had comprehensive plans last year that were 10 or more years old. Another 16 had no plan.
# “Sprawl continues unabated throughout the southern portion of the Lehigh River watershed, Greenfields disappear while many brownfields – old industrial sites – go unused in our cities and older boroughs.”
# Shad have returned to the river. And a 1985 study found that a shad fishery on the Lehigh would generate $2.1 million in economic returns to local businesses along the river.
# About 566,000 people live within the watershed.
# There are 140 regulated point-source discharges, such as sewage treatment plants, within the watershed.