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Alum Leads Research Project on Mine Drainage in Johnstown

May 2, 2018 Tags: Research , School of Sciences

Acid Mine Drainage JohnstownMine drainage is one of the biggest environmental concerns in Pennsylvania. Learning how to treat mine drainage has always been a staple of the Environmental Engineering Department’s curriculum at Saint Francis University because of its serious environmental impact and prevalence throughout the region. The drainage forms when an abandoned coal mine fills with water and discharges to a water body. The resulting pollution can be detrimental to fish and other aquatic life in the impaired stream as well as in waterways downstream. 

Previous knowledge of mine drainage chemistry led to a unique idea: what if you could treat two things, acid mine drainage and municipal sewage, by mixing them together under controlled circumstances? This idea of “co-treatment” comes from the fact that mine drainage has some similar properties to chemicals that are typically used in the municipal sewage treatment process. 

Johnstown, Pennsylvania has a significant mine discharge located right in the heart of the city, located just north of the inclined plane.  The Johnstown sewage treatment plant is located about 3.5 miles further north of the discharge along the Conemaugh River. The proximity of the mine discharge and the treatment facility makes Johnstown an intriguing site for co-treatment. Conventionally, these waters would be treated separately. If proven possible, a co-treatment solution could make treatment more efficient and effective for the city.

Saint Francis University and the University of Rhode Island have started a joint research project to determine the most ideal solution for co-treatment of the Johnstown mine drainage and municipal sewage. C.J. Spellman, 2017 Saint Francis University Environmental Engineering graduate and current University of Rhode Island PhD student, is running the project.  Drs. William Strosnider and Julie LaBar of Saint Francis University oversee the project. Dr. Joseph Goodwill, an expert in iron chemistry and water treatment, is the project lead at the University of Rhode Island.

The work is also assisted by undergraduate students in Environmental Engineering courses at Saint Francis University giving them a unique opportunity to have direct involvement in graduate-level research with a Saint Francis alumnus, as well as hands-on practice with new laboratory procedures via cutting-edge research. 

The first phase of the project involves investigating how well solids would settle out of water from mixtures of mine drainage and treated sewage.  Saint Francis University laboratories have collected the data and the results are being analyzed. Future phases involve the simulation of wastewater treatment at the University of Rhode Island laboratories, and projections on the properties of waste solids produced by treatment processes.  The entire project is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2019.

A final report will be delivered to stakeholders in our region to allow decision-makers to determine whether treating these waters separately or together is the ideal solution and what steps should be taken next. Study funding is provided by the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, a Pennsylvania nonprofit that focuses on leveraging local funding and resources to restore Pennsylvania’s waterways. Additional project partners include the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, as well as the Johnstown Redevelopment Authority.  

Spellman hopes to conduct further research to deepen the collaboration between Saint Francis University and the University of Rhode Island. In addition to the project report to regional stakeholders, the results of this project will also be used as a portion of Spellman’s doctoral dissertation and eventually published in multiple academic journals.  

Environmental Engineering Program