Robert Hughes thinks the coal that fueled railroad engines some 150 years ago is making the waters of Solomon Creek rise higher today, raising the risk of flooding in Wilkes-Barre and other towns in the creek's watershed.
Hughes, executive director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation, recently completed an 18-month survey of the Solomon Creek watershed and discovered a forgotten dumping ground of spent coal ash in the Solomon Gap section of Fairview Township.
Hughes will present his findings at a meeting tonight that he encourages the public, especially those living near Solomon Creek and its tributaries, to attend.
The Solomon Gap ash piles, some rising 60 to 100 feet and speckled pink and orange from oxidation, were presumably dumped into the creek in the days when steam engines powered the nearby Lehigh Valley Railroad, Hughes said.
The same pinkish coal can be found throughout the watershed in sediment and gravel bars obstructing creek flows, which increases the risk of flooding when the creek waters rise.
We found that sediment in every gravel bar downstream, he said. The only way to eliminate all of that deposition is to eliminate the source.
Hughes wasn't exaggerating.
Standing near the intersection of South Main and Division streets in Hanover Township, about four miles as the creek flows from Solomon Gap, Hughes plucked a piece of pinkish spent coal from Solomon Creek on Thursday.
That's one of the coal ash clinkers, all the way down here, he said.
To complete the survey, Hughes, another EPCAMR worker, several interns and volunteers walked more than 26 miles of stream banks in the 18-square-mile watershed, which spans nine municipalities in Luzerne County.
Along the way they collected water samples for mineral analysis, insects that indicate good or poor water quality and fish, and documented what they found in hundreds of photographs.
Not all of what Hughes discovered was bad news.
The fishery survey component of the study – the first undertaken in the watershed in 17 years – found abundant trout in the headwaters of Solomon and Pine creeks on Haystack Mountain, and a quality trout habitat in a portion of Sugar Notch Run currently listed on the national impaired waters list.
But EPCAMR also found creeks obstructed by gravel bars and downed trees, two previously unknown acid mine drainage discharges and several broken pipes leaching raw sewage into the watershed.
Hughes measured more than 2 feet of sediment in the creek off Division Street, and said sedimentation is 3 to 4 feet deep in Wilkes-Barre near the Barney and Waller street bridges and the Brookside neighborhood. It's no surprise those areas risk flooding because that sediment at the bottom displaces water, pushing the surface higher, he said.
Hughes, who previously surveyed the Bowman Creek watershed, said the sedimentation problem isn't confined to Solomon Creek.
If I did an assessment for every stream up and down the valley, I think we'd find the exact same thing, he said.
Because it hasn't been seen as a problem, the sediment deposits have festered untouched for decades, he said.
Hughes hopes tonight's meeting will create awareness that will lead to change.
The study was partially funded by a $6,000 grant administered by the Pennsylvania chapter of stream conservation group Trout Unlimited. After submitting his findings to the group Hughes said he plans to apply for another grant he will use to buy a couple chainsaws to start clearing downed trees and branches obstructing streams.
He thinks many residents would be willing to help out if they knew the obstructions were increasing their flood risk.
If (people) don't know there are blockages in the creek, then they don't know why they are getting flooded, Hughes said. People would be more willing to help clean it out if they knew it was in their backyard.
He also hopes the survey will encourage municipalities to remediate larger problems such as gravel bars, which without significant grant funding would exceed his small non-profit's capabilities.
The report doesn't point fingers, Hughes said. But it does say that maybe the (Wyoming Valley) Sanitary Authority, or the city of Wilkes-Barre, or Hanover Township or Ashley should be looking at these issues, because maybe it is their responsibility, and maybe they could be impacted somewhere down the line.
What: EPCAMR unveils findings of its Solomon Creek watershed survey
When: Tonight, 5:30 to 7:30
Where: EPCAMR/Earth Conservancy Office, 101 S. Main St., Ashley (near the Huber Breaker)