The Blacklick Creek Watershed Association (BCWA) was formed in 1993 as a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization. During the planning and early construction phases for the Ghost Town Trail, a rails-to-trails project that parallels much of the Blacklick, it became obvious that the lack of aquatic life and visible iron-staining along the length of the stream would detract from the trail users’ experience. A group of local residents (Joan Hawk, Jim Lafontaine, Janis Long, and Ted Pluchinsky) gathered to discuss what could be done to clean up the pollution. BCWA was born out of those early meetings.
Since inception, the primary focus of BCWA has been addressing the numerous sources of acid mine drainage (AMD) within the watershed. BCWA’s first president, Jim Lafontaine, lead BCWA through the early formative years (1993-1998), developing the organizational foundation and structure. A highlight of those years came in 1996, when BCWA hosted a statewide AMD conference. Jim’s tenure as president gave way to Dr. Robert Eppley (Environmental Scientist, PhD, Chemistry). Dr. Eppley was instrumental in securing and managing a number of DEP Growing Greener and other grants, resulting in the construction of a series of successful passive AMD treatment systems. These efforts culminated in the BCWA receiving the PADEP Governors Award for Environmental Excellence. These systems remain in existence today and stand as one of Dr. Eppley’s legacies. He was a tireless advocate for the Blacklick Creek Watershed.
BCWA works with many diverse partners to complete its projects and to reach its goals. Some of those partners include the PA DEP, PA Game Commission, PA Fish & Boat Commission, county officials, township officials, conservation districts, coal mining companies, utilities, and faculty and students of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Saint Francis University.
BCWA and its partners have conducted several in-depth water quality assessments. The assessments help identify significant areas and sources of water impairment and suggest ways to remediate these problems. Such assessments can help leverage, and sometimes are a prerequisite to obtaining, government funding for addressing pollution sources. Some such documents prepared include “Blacklick Creek Watershed Assessment and Restoration Plan”; “South Branch Blacklick Creek Watershed Restoration Plan”, by BCWA in cooperation with the DEP; and “Phase II Watershed Assessment and Restoration Plan for the Upper Two Lick Creek Watershed” with principle investigator Dr. John Benhart, Jr., Department of Geography and Regional Planning, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. An assessment of lower Yellow Creek was completed in 2022), and an assessment of upper Two Lick Creek is on-going as of 2023.
The Association has completed 13 mine drainage treatment and reclamation projects in the Blacklick Creek watershed. Through the funding of Pennsylvania Growing Greener program, EPA 319 Grants, Indiana County Conservation District grants and grants from private industry, BCWA has constructed passive treatment systems along Coal Pit Run, Two Lick Creek, Laurel Run, and Yellow Creek.
BCWA has supported the efforts of the waste coal industry, which has remined and reclaimed many abandoned coal refuse piles within the watershed. Four of the seven largest and most polluting refuse piles have been completely remined and reclaimed, resulting in the return of aquatic life to long-polluted sections of the North and South Branches of Blacklick Creek. Those four sites were the Revloc piles, the Beth Energy Mine 31 and Loraine piles in Nanty Go, and the Colver pile. The re-mining of the Lucerne pile on Yellow Creek will hopefully be completed by 2023 with reclamation to continue beyond that. The Vintondale pile is slated to be reclaimed in early 2023. That leaves the Tide pile on Yellow Creek as the largest remaining pile to be addressed, although there are many smaller piles located in the various subwatersheds.
One of the most exciting developments is that the Pennsylvania DEP is constructing an active treatment plant on the main stem Blacklick Creek near Wehrum. Construction began in late 2022 and the plant will treat the discharges from the Vinton #6 Mine, Redmill Mine and the Wehrum mines. This will restore over 25 miles of the main stem Blacklick Creek. The plant is projected to become operational in 2024.
All of the activity within the watershed has had a large, positive impact on water quality and stream appearance. The concentrations of iron, aluminum and acidity have been reduced in many stream segments, and the pH has increased. Macroinvertebrates are returning to several stream segments as are fish populations. Sections of the North and South Branches Blacklick Creek that flowed orange in 1993, when BCWA was formed, now run clear and support aquatic life, including expanding fish populations. Completion of the Wehrum plant will greatly expand a fledgling fish population in the main stem and will greatly improve the aesthetic experience of Ghost Town Trail users. Much work remains to be done, but the significant improvements that have been made are a testimony to the vision of the organization’s early founders and the partners who persevered in the face of a daunting task.