The wide stream that flows south of this remote, tiny mountain town is officially known as the Bennett Branch of the Sinnemahoning.
But for decades, people here in Elk County had a nasty nickname for it: “Sulfur Creek.”
“It was bad,” says Ken Rowe, the head of the Bennett Branch Watershed Association. The culprit? Sulfuric acid leaching into the stream from dozens of abandoned mines in the area. “There was no life in it at all,” Rowe remembers. “If you swam in it, you came out orange.”
Today, thanks to a clean-up led by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, and carried out by Cat customer Berner Construction Inc. of Gap, Pennsylvania, no one calls it Sulfur Creek anymore.
Brook and brown trout have been reintroduced to the waters and are thriving, drawing something not seen in a century to its banks: anglers.
The wild elk that roam this part of north central Pennsylvania and gave the surrounding county its name are benefitting, too, browsing in the meadow-like open areas created by the clean-up and planted with clovers, grasses and other high-quality forage.
And Benezette is now home to a world-class, elk-focused visitors’ center that attracts hundreds of thousands of sightseers to the region annually; in recent years, half a dozen new local businesses have opened to accommodate all the nature lovers.
Locals credit the clean-up performed by the Cat customer for what’s gone right. “The elk brings the tourists in and that’s been an economic boost to that area,” says Jack Manack, the proprietor of Elk County Outfitters, which guides hunters in the area.
“But it all started with that reclamation effort. Without it, the tourism wouldn’t have happened. We have a lot of elk. But most of them are in the middle of nowhere. The weekend visitor couldn’t just go find them. What the reclamation created was a habitat where people can bank on seeing elk every morning and every evening.”
MINING, LOGGING KEY
Thirty-eight-miles-long, the Bennett Branch of the Sinnemahoning flows through a rugged landscape once filled with vast hardwood forests and – beneath the trees – extensive coal seams. For nearly a century, the mining and timber industries dominated the economy, providing jobs in a region with few other employers.
Unlike today’s U.S. mining industry, which is closely regulated and required to restore any land it works on to its “approximate original contours,” the miners of old who operated here did so with no environmental rules whatsoever. So while the jobs rapidly disappeared when the industry began winding down major operations in the 1950s, the physical evidence of the decades of unregulated strip mining lingered on.
“When you looked at Pennsylvania from the air, it was scarred,” says Dean Baker, an environmental program manager for the state’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.
Water quality was also an issue. The lower 33 miles of the Bennett Branch of the Sinnemahoning, which runs into the Susquehanna River and east into the Chesapeake Bay, were fouled by the acidic water leaking out of the surrounding mines. And so for decades, the waters from around here were laden with heavy metals, low pH, and suspended solids as they flowed east to the Bay.
In 2002, Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation, together with a host of public and private partners, joined together to fix the problem. By the time they finished 10 years later, the project had morphed into one of the most comprehensive abandoned mine and watershed restorations in state history.
And Cat customer Berner Construction had managed many of the project’s toughest jobs.
CUTTING THEIR TEETH
Berner husband-and-wife founders Jim and Andrea Irey were new in the reclamation field.
Jim, a civil engineer, and Andrea, a chemical engineer, had only opened the company’s doors a year earlier after long careers working for a leading environmental remediation company. Cleaning up abandoned mines was new to them both.
“We cut our teeth on this project,” says Jim.
But by the time the team finished the projects around Benezette, Berner had established a name for itself in the small world of mine reclamation
In 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior gave its national award for abandoned mine reclamation to the Benezette project. Berner, along with P&N Coal Company Inc. and Stream Restoration Inc., were the contractors of record in the citation. In 2013, the bureau and Berner did it again, winning a national award for their work on an abandoned mine clean-up in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Irey, who credits Ken Rowe and Dean Baker and their agencies for the success of the two projects, says mine restoration is “not the most lucrative work.” But he says it accomplishes something the Ireys wanted to do as entrepreneurs.
“When Andrea and I started the business, we set out to make the place we’re living better,” Jim says. “And we accomplish that working on these projects.”
‘ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF DIRT’
The to-do list on the Benezette clean-up was long. Workers needed to remove 10 highwalls and restore the landscape to its natural contours; move more than 5,000 cubic yards of coal waste; close 23 old mine openings; install five wet seals; and lay more than a half-million tons of limestone in the stream and the reclaimed mine sites to reduce acidity.
Irey says he relied exclusively on Cat D11s for the project because the tractors were “the most efficient way” to get the difficult, complicated job done.
“In the past,” he explains, “when they mined the coal they threw the overburden to the downhill side of the mine. And when they were finished, they just left it there and went to the next seam. That’s just the way business was done.
“So to close the abandoned mine, all that overburden on the downhill side needs to go back up the hill. Since we are not working in a flat area, where we could use scrapers or ridged or articulated trucks, the D11 was the best answer. One of our D11s can move an enormous amount of dirt in a day’s time. And we have three of them.”
Another big challenge was installing the network of so-called “wet seals.” They required the Berner team to open up sealed openings to old underground mines, insert drain pipes to funnel and treat the leaking water to raise its pH, and then reseal the mines.
“You’re opening up an old mine, so you have to worry about everything: material falling, methane, and there’s always water and the hazards associated with it,” he says.
“It’s not a problem for the equipment. But it’s a concern for the guys and their safety.”
The remoteness of the work site made preventative maintenance, service and support another potential issue. But Irey says his Cat dealer, Cleveland Brothers, met the challenge. “We can’t do maintenance ourselves. We’re not set up for that. That’s what they bring to the table. We relied on them heavily and they did a good job for us.”
Today, thanks to the reclamation, the state’s elk herd, nearly 1,000 strong, has more room to graze. The surge in elk-related tourism, which really took off following the 2010 opening of the Keystone Elk Country Visitors Center, has prompted the opening of a wine store, a cafe and a moonshine emporium. Jobs have followed.
“All those businesses opened up in the last few years and there’s more coming,” says Brady Schrecengost, who built a rental cabin beside his own in Benezette to accommodate the visitors.
The influx has put Benezette on the map and fueled discussion about the small town’s future. “There are some folks in the valley who are anti-anything that brings people into the valley,” says Carl McConnell, who has a weekend cabin in town. “But to me it’s all good.”
“The energy’s out of here,” he says. “They’re not going to come in here and mine for coal or harvest timber. So why not put it back the way it was? Why not clean up the streams, restore the aquatic life, restock the fish populations, create foraging habitat for the elk, and attract people who like the outdoors?”