Climate change, economy, protection

Water Quality in Eastern PA: An interview with Bobby Hughes

I was fortunate in the past year to befriend Bobby Hughes; a guy who has a unique and difficult job in eastern Pennsylvania. He helps protect the water of millions of people…


Recently the Trump administration submitted a budget that substantially cuts funding to the EPA.


Bobby Hughes is the founder and CEO of an organization called the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation (EPCAMR). It covers North East and North Central PA, the bituminous coal fields that include the Marcellus shale as well as the anthracite coal fields of North East PA

Area covers 16 counties there are thousands of miles of streams impacted by abandoned mine drainage and multiple watersheds, including the Susquehanna, Lehigh and Delaware River basins.

It was founded in 1996 and it works in cooperation with conservation districts, community groups, municipalities, school districts, colleges, cogeneration facility operators, trade association, the EPA, PA department environmental protection and various bureaus.

Bobby says, “We act as a go between for underrepresented coalfield communities to find funding and secure grants for projects that improve water quality, stream restoration and land reclamation, and promotes environmental education projects with schools.”


I asked,

So what’s the responsibility of mining and power industry to clean up streams they have polluted?


With the abandoned mine lands we are dealing with, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 gave companies a chance to step aside from legacy issues related to mining coal prior to 1977. Where coal mining companies decided to divest and absolve selves from mines, they were not going to be responsible from reclamation going forward. If they decided to continue mining, they became liable and responsible to treat water as a result of mining, they were not permitted to leave stream worse than it was. Companies use monitors for their effect on water discharge; they were held liable for cleanup. Corporations are responsible for backfilling and revegetating areas once mining is complete.


There are also 14 regeneration plants in the area, taking in waste coal which they mix with limestone, to create ash and deal with water acidity issues from waste coal piles that result from rain water, while creating electricity. They do a really good job of reclaiming the lands for possible development in the future.




What is the impact downstream on drinking water quality of discharge?


The local tributaries are the worst affected because that is where the heavy metals are dropping out in the stream. In certain watersheds there are dams on the river (Susquehanna/ Schuylkill) and I’m sure the coal waste has found its way to the sediments. Anyone would tell you there is a fear of releasing or removing these dams because of the legacy sediments that could be very detrimental to aquatic and fish life.


Private well’s adjacent to polluted streams need to be tested properly not just for iron but also aluminum. Nature of ground water, need to be fully aware. Public water supplies are not as impacted because they are going through a treatment process


I don’t advise people to take drinking water lightly in the headwaters where we are working because you can get pretty sick really quickly, diuretic stomach cramps.


I would imagine it would affect wildlife…


I don’t see a particular die off. I see a lot of beaver active in these areas, a lot of deer, frog… fish are also tolerable of the chemistry depending on the particular water chemistry (pH, acidity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and alkalinity).


Is there a total cost to clean up the mines in Pennsylvania?


Cost thrown around of $15bil but I think that’s a conservative estimate, something that the state may have come up with years ago, it’s not one that we have come up with. What they fail to account for is that every discharge has a different quality, different flow, and different restrictions downstream that cause costs to go up enormously. I know that systems can run into millions of dollars per discharge that we look at.


We are trying to incorporate resource recovery to recover metals from discharges, using geothermal or energy from the water itself. Micro turbine generation, industrial uses of the water for heating or cooling, irrigation… we need ventures to start up in the area to look at these ideas but that’s the direction we are going.



Is there an initiative to start businesses to address that?


That’s an Achilles’ heel of ours because we are not a marketing company, not an economic development organization, not a chambers of commerce to get that conversation going. We do try to work with those types of entities but we are spread thin.


What is your background like? What got you interested in this area?


I grew up here in the Wilkes Barre area. Born and raised, mines and streams were in my back yard growing up, we would go exploring. We would go to the mine fires in laurel run. Intrigued at an early age by the environment. Hung out at the geological society, started volunteering with some organizations working on the rivers, got full scholarship to Penn State, did internship with bureau of abandoned mines. Degree in environmental resource management and hydrogeology, trained me to deal with water pollution in pa.

After college I worked at a DEP mining office and nonprofit PA environmental council. These led to the founding of our organization, Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation.


How does EPCAMR get funded?


About 72% of funding comes from the EPA, with the additional funds coming from other grants, foundations, membership, and corporate donations. Our base funding from EPA only supports a percentage of two full-time positions within the office. But it gives us the ability to leverage money 4 or 5 to1 or by raising additional funds for other organizations to improve water quality.


So it sounds like the EPA is pretty important to deal with these kinds of legacy environmental issues.


They are, they are. The grant falls under Section 319 of the Clean Water Act. We are finding money from a variety of sources to clean up Non-Point Source pollution. If the EPA were eliminated, 20 years of work that we’ve done successfully in partnership across the region has the potential of being wiped out.


It’s an environmental injustice that we have to still live today with orange, rusty, water that is tainted with iron, aluminum, and manganese in our rivers and streams.



I saw you are working with John Welsh, a photographer… What are you doing together?


John made a movie called “Scorched” about the mine fires in Eastern PA. He working on a photo essay that will help us raise awareness… help people connect to what is happening in their own back yards that they may not be aware of. ( )

In addition you can check out these organization websites for additional information:



I appreciate Bobby taking the time to share his insights and better inform all of us about the challenges in working on legacy mine and water issues.


Contact me if you are interested in discussing issues of environment and corporate responsibility in more detail.

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