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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2008
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Sierra Magazine
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One Small Step: Glazed With What Oozed
March/April 2008


Margaret Dunn Rochester, Pennsylvania
Cofounder of the Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition, age 59

WHEN LIFE HANDS YOU LEMONS ... well, you know. But when life hands you acidic mine drainage? Geologist Margaret Dunn has toiled most of her life to make something good from the nasty runoff.

With roots in West Virginia's coal country, Dunn has spent the past 30 years slogging through mud, working with volunteers and businesses to restore streams polluted by acidic runoff from coal mines abandoned a century ago.

Dunn's group, the Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition, focuses on a 40-square-mile area in western Pennsylvania. The work can be arduous, but in 1992 Dunn learned about a simple filtration method that requires no electricity and little maintenance. The team constructs a collection system at the source of the drainage; the runoff is diverted through several ponds containing mushroom compost and limestone to neutralize acidity and remove metals. So far, the group has installed 15 systems treating 750 million gallons of mine drainage a year, and fish now thrive in 11 miles of previously lifeless streams.

The coalition's work took an unexpected turn when Dunn discovered that two plentiful byproducts of the passive treatment process, manganese and iron oxide, could be used as a pottery glaze. The group contacted local potter Robert Isenberg, who warmed to the idea of creating mugs glazed with the recovered elements. "The iron ore creates a transparent yellow glaze," Isenberg said, "and the manganese gives off rich earth tones." A coalition volunteer who dropped in for a pint at the North Country Brewing Company came away with an order for 300 of the mugs; now the group sells the pottery to help finance additional restoration work.

"This is getting big," Dunn said. "We couldn't have done this without all these people. I just know about rocks and water." —Bette McDevitt

PURIFY ME A RIVER Acid mine drainage affects over 6,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania, leaving one of the worst legacies of abandoned coal mines in the country. Almost 300 passive treatment systems have been installed in the state.

ON THE WEB Learn more about stream restoration and mine drainage, visit the Slippery Rock Watershed Coalition's Web site, srwc.org, or datashed.org and streamrestorationinc.org.


Photo by Lisa Kyle; used with permission.

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