Trout river reborn in the PA Wilds?
Penfield, Pa. — Historical accounts say that Civil War General and U.S. President Ulysses Grant was an avid angler who visited Elk County to fish the Bennett Branch of the Sinnemahoning and its tributaries three times in the late 1800s.
The village where he stayed during these trout-fishing excursions was eventually named after the old warrior – Grant, Pa.
At about the time Grant died in 1885, coal mining began in the Tyler and Proctor mines well upstream. Acid drainage from those mines, laden with dissolved toxic metals, killed the trout and most other aquatic life in the stream by the end of the century.
But now a new mine-drainage-treatment plant that began operation this past summer on the Bennett Branch at Hollywood, about 20 miles from DuBois, promises to recreate the wild-trout fishery and breathe life into the northern tier’s struggling economy.
By all accounts, it presents a very rare opportunity.
The $14.5 million facility, which covers 41 acres, is expected to treat an average 4,000 gallons a minute of acid mine drainage from 21 separate discharges originating in four different underground mines.
Significantly, the water flowing from the deep mines is a cool 52 degrees F., perfect for supporting a wild-trout fishery.
John Arway, executive director of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission, called the prospect “unique.”
“We can’t chill water for a trout stream, so we don’t get many opportunities to create a wild-trout fishery,” he said. “This is a major development for the northcentral region.
“I suspect at one time, well over a century ago, the Bennett Branch had wild trout. But the lower 33 miles of the stream – which flows through beautiful mountain landscape – have been severely impaired due to the mine drainage for a long, long time.”
The discharges from the Tyler, and Proctor mine complexes at Hollywood contributed nearly half of the pollution load to the Bennett Branch, according to Jamie Legenos, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Several other acid-mine- drainage mitigation projects, completed in recent years on polluted Bennett Branch tributaries Caledonia, Jack Dent and Porcupine runs, have also improved water quality.
The water coming out of the Hollywood mines is deadly – as acidic as vinegar and carrying toxic metals such as iron, aluminum and manganese. But now the flow leaving the new plant – built by DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation – is neutral and virtually free of dissolved metals.
The facility, which was constructed by Kukurin Contracting Inc. of Export, mixes lime with the water, removes the metals and pumps the resulting alkaline sludge back into the mines.
Now that the mine discharge is no longer toxic, Arway estimates that it won’t take long for aquatic life to return to the Bennett Branch.
“Typically the biological response you see first starts with macro invertebrates, that reproduce several times a year,” he said. “We will let those organisms determine when and how we begin actively managing the stream.
“We have to be fairly confident that the stream is stabilized and the macro invertebrates are starting to recover, just to make certain that the fish we will stock are not at risk of some failure.
“Those trout are expensive, and we will be making a significant investment, so we’ll let DEP work the bugs out of the treatment process.”
After that, the Fish & Boat Commission plans to add the stream to the stocking rolls. How long it takes for trout to begin reproducing on their own and sustaining a wild population is anyone’s guess, Arway conceded.
“I expect that in a year or so, we will be in a good position to make a decision on stocking trout – maybe even sooner than that.”
DEP chose the Bennett Branch for the major mine reclamation project because about 70 percent of the land within its 387-square-mile watershed is publicly owned, Legenos said, either state game land or state forest land.
It was also selected by the state because of its potential for tourism growth, partially because of the free-ranging elk herd that lives in the Bennett Valley. Former Gov. Ed Rendell once called the elk range the “lynchpin” of the PA Wilds tourism initiative.
Because of the Bennett Valley’s rugged, striking scenery and the area’s abundant wildlife, Arway called the region’s outdoor recreation potential immense.
“I expect anglers will travel there to fish an exceptional trout stream,” he said. “Many already have hunting and fishing camps in the area, and it should revitalize the economy by having a trout fishery there.
“And a wild trout fishery – in those surroundings – would attract anglers from a wide area, who would spend money when they visit.
“Every stream has its own assets, but where else in Pennsylvania could you fish for wild trout in a big stream with elk on the banks?”
DEP’s Legenos also predicted that abating the pollution would boost the economy. “This project will increase water quality in the watershed, which will allow for increased property values in the community and the potential for increased tourism,” he said.
Funding for the project came from the state’s Capital Budget [$12 million] and PA Growing Greener [$2 million]. It will cost $400,000 annually to cover the facility’s operation and maintenance costs, Legenos pointed out.
“The funds to pay for operational costs will come from the DEP’s Acid Mine Drainage Set-Aside Program,” he said. “These funds come from a fee placed on each ton of coal mined across the country.
“The fees are collected by the Federal Office of Surface Mining and returned to states like Pennsylvania with eligible abandoned mine problems.”
If the Bennett Branch is to support a trout fishery, the Hollywood plant must, of course, be ultimately reliable. Roger Rummel, an engineer with DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation who oversaw the plant’s construction, detailed its fail-safe features.
He noted that the facility has an emergency generator with two days of fuel stored, ready to take over in the event of a power failure.
And the plant operator can control and adjust its operation via a laptop over the Internet from home, if necessary. But the major precaution is the 10-million-gallon polishing ponds between the plant and the Bennett Branch.
“Water flows through the ponds before entering the stream, and in an emergency situation, we could dose mine water with lime in the ponds,” Rummel said.
“To give you an idea, the 10- million-gallon polishing ponds are the size of two football fields – around 2 acres – and depending on flow, between 5 and 9 feet deep.”
The Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation is committed to run the Hollywood plant for a very long time, Rummel noted. “That’s the goal of the bureau’s program,” he said. “We are trying to clean up the scars of mining that were created in the past.”
The prospect of more tourists visiting Bennett Valley year-round, is exciting for area businessman Steve Kronenwetter, who with his wife, Colleen, owns and operates Wapiti Woods guest cabins on the bank of the Bennett Branch a few miles south of Benezette.
“If you look at what has happened in our area because of elk tourism and the new Elk Country Visitors Center, the majority of our customers come in the late summer and early fall to see the rut,” he said. “We get inundated with people.
“But if we have a good, solid trout fishery in the Bennett Branch – that changes the dynamic of travel for many of the people coming to our area.
“I personally think that the May-June-July time period is one of the most gorgeous times of the year for our area. That’s when many fishermen would visit.”
Kronenwetter admitted he is not objective about a trout fishery – let alone a wild-trout fishery – returning to the Bennett Branch, since he owns frontage on the stream.
“The potential is phenomenal,” he said. “Imagine someone being able to walk out of their cabin to the stream and go fly-fishing right there in front of them. That’s good stuff!”