The massive Avondale pit in Plymouth Township — one of the largest coal-mining scars in the state — is now a memory.
Mike Dziak stood atop the now-filled void last week, relishing the panoramic Wyoming Valley view that might someday be enjoyed by the occupants of houses and townhomes he envisions there.
As executive director of the nonprofit Earth Conservancy, which owns the site, Dziak pushed hard for $3.47 million to reclaim the 90-acre site, which was strip-mined for about two decades and abandoned in 1959 by the Glen Alden Coal Co.
The restoration was funded through the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation using fees received from coal mined in recent years.
“It’s really rewarding,” said Dziak. “This place was unusable and dangerous.”
The pit has been a magnet for illegal dumping for decades. Tires, rusted cars ditched by thieves and hundreds of televisions and refrigerators had to be removed when the reclamation began in mid-2000, Dziak said.
Locals used to call it the “Blue Lagoon” in the 1960s when the pit held clear spring water, but the water turned murky and rust-colored from mounting trash.
Dangerous pit fires
Township Supervisor Joseph Yudichak recalls pit fires over the years that endangered firefighters who had to scale the strippings to extinguish them.
In the summer of 1989, a fire in the pit began a conflagration that continued for two months. The Office of Surface Mining had to build a mile-long water pipe from the Plymouth Reservoir to put out the fire.
The fear of someone falling off the pit precipice was always in the back of Yudichak’s mind. “I’m relieved that we no longer have to worry about this liability,” he said.
Colleen Connolly, state DEP regional spokeswoman, said Avondale is one of the largest mine reclamation projects that has been tackled in eastern Pennsylvania. “It was an open sore, an open wound on the area,” she said.
The word “pit” understates the size of the manmade hole, which was 800 feet wide, 2,600 feet long and more than 200 feet deep, Dziak said.
Figuring out how to fill the void was an “engineering challenge” because funds weren’t available to purchase and truck in fill, he said.
Instead, contractors — initially NAPCON Construction Co. and later C.E. Ankiewicz Construction and Excavation Inc. of Mountain Top — dug up and transported rock and dirt from the rest of the property using special heavy equipment designed to navigate the sloped terrain, Dziak said.
A total of 1.2 million cubic yards of material was moved to fill the pit and reconstruct the adjacent lands, he said.
Contractors created tiered plateaus that can hold structures and a network of rock-lined channels and basins designed to drain and hold stormwater — including water that would have gone into the pit, he said.
Black to green
Most of the site has been mulched and seeded to prevent erosion. “This spring, it will be green instead of black,” Dziak said.
Future development on the site will depend on the township’s success securing funds for sewer system additions and upgrades, Dziak said. The township is required to complete sewage work elsewhere, and the project would include a connection to the Avondale property, he said.
The township received a $1 million grant for sewer work and is in the process of applying for another $5 million, which should cover the lion’s share of the project, Yudichak said.
The Avondale site would be accessible from Jersey Road off U.S. Route 11.
A residential project on higher ground is a key to future growth in the municipality, which will have about 60 fewer properties due to past and future flood buyouts, said township Supervisor Gale Conrad.
Property taxes from one new home valued around $225,000 compensate for the loss of about three or four flood-prone structures, she said.
The construction of 15 homes in recent years is offsetting the lost taxes from buyouts, and the Avondale project would allow the township tax base to grow, she said.
“If 100 homes go up there, it will be a financial resolve for Plymouth Township and its future,” she said. “The views from the Avondale site are unbelievable. That alone is worth so much.”
Yudichak predicts homes at Avondale would sell like hotcakes.
“I’ve had people tell me they would buy a home there today if it was available,” he said.
A master plan completed in 2006 proposed around 214 single family homes, 92 townhome units and 90 condominiums.
The plan stated there is available access to public water, electric and gas from the site.
Dziak pointed to some of the locations visible from the former pit, including Nanticoke, Sugar Notch, buildings near the Wyoming Valley Mall and the wind turbines in Bear Creek Township.
He pointed out a path of trucks climbing a distant pass of Interstate 81.
The property also abuts the 700-acre Lackawanna State Forest.
“That’s another big selling point,” Dziak said.