US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Mine Water Environ.


Acidic mine drainage (AMD) from legacy anthracite mines has contaminated Swatara Creek in eastern Pennsylvania. Intermittently collected base-flow data for 1959–1986 indicate that fish were absent immediately downstream from the mined area where pH ranged from 3.5 to 7.2 and concentrations of sulfate, dissolved iron, and dissolved aluminum were as high as 250, 2.0, and 4.7 mg/L, respectively. However, in the 1990s, fish returned to upper Swatara Creek, coinciding with the implementation of AMD treatment (limestone drains, limestone diversion wells, limestone sand, constructed wetlands) in the watershed. During 1996–2006, as many as 25 species of fish were identified in the reach downstream from the mined area, with base-flow pH from 5.8 to 7.6 and concentrations of sulfate, dissolved iron, and dissolved aluminum as high as 120, 1.2, and 0.43 mg/L, respectively. Several of the fish taxa are intolerant of pollution and low pH, such as river chub (Nocomis micropogon) and longnose dace (Rhinichthys cataractae). Cold-water species such as brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) and warm-water species such as rock bass (Ambloplites rupestris) varied in predominance depending on stream flow and stream temperature. Storm flow data for 1996–2007 indicated pH, alkalinity, and sulfate concentrations decreased as the stream flow and associated storm-runoff component increased, whereas iron and other metal concentrations were poorly correlated with stream flow because of hysteresis effects (greater metal concentrations during rising stage than falling stage). Prior to 1999, pH < 5.0 was recorded during several storm events; however, since the implementation of AMD treatments, pH has been maintained near neutral. Flow-adjusted trends for 1997–2006 indicated significant increases in calcium; decreases in hydrogen ion, dissolved aluminum, dissolved and total manganese, and total iron; and no change in sulfate or dissolved iron in Swatara Creek immediately downstream from the mined area. The increased pH and calcium from limestone in treatment systems can be important for mitigating toxic effects of dissolved metals. Thus, treatment of AMD during the 1990s improved pH buffering, reduced metals transport, and helped to decrease metals toxicity to fish.