In the early 20th century, the area around Blackleggs Creek in Indiana County was a hotbed of coal mines. Now abandoned, their legacy continues to impact the stream. The Blackleggs Creek watershed is relatively small (roughly 45 square miles) yet has an astonishing 52 abandoned mine drainage (AMD) discharges. For years, nothing was done to address the discharge. Situated in the headwaters of Blacklegs Creek, the Kolb discharge has a flow exceeding 1,000 gallons per minute and contributes over 16,000 pounds of iron to the substrate of the stream annually. Iron lowers the pH of water, making it corrosive and unable to support many forms of aquatic life.
In 1971, the Department of Environmental Regulation (DER), predecessor to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), began a study in the Blackleggs Creek watershed to determine what could be done to repair the AMD. Additionally, a concerned group of volunteers interested in restoring Blackleggs Creek measured water flows, tested water chemistry, and located all the mining-related impacts on the watershed.
When the study was completed in 1974, DER estimated that $1.16 million was needed to restore Blackleggs Creek to its natural condition. That same year, DER directed $27,000 towards Blackleggs restoration efforts; sadly, the core group could not raise enough additional funds to meet the restoration needs of the watershed, so it had to put its goal on hold.
In 1998, Lou Kopczyk, at the time working at the Indiana County Conservation District, told a new group of volunteers about a new source of funding for watershed groups to clean their streams. The volunteers began monitoring the stream so that they would be ready to apply for an Environmental Stewardship Fund grant.
Over the next several months, data was collected, paperwork was completed, and eventually funding was granted. The Kolb treatment system, the first AMD treatment system installed along Blackleggs Creek, was completed in 2001.
The Kolb system is a simple two-cell passive treatment system designed to treat the approximate 1,000 gallon-per-minute alkaline discharge. The water is aerated by the force of the flow dropping over an aeration basket, which allows a majority of the iron to precipitate and collect in a large holding pond and the remaining amount to settle out through a polishing wetland. The Kolb system has received regular maintenance and several repairs to pipes leading to the system. Thanks to the care of volunteers and new funding sources, it remains in good working order and continues to improve the water quality of Blackleggs Creek.
Kolb and the land around the system have been turned into a park to honor the memory of all the past volunteers who dreamed of cleaning up their watershed. Visitors to Memorial Park can fish along Blackleggs Creek or enjoy a picnic in the nearby pavilion, all the while being serenaded by the water flowing through Kolb’s aeration fountain. There is a short trail winding through the park leading up to Kolb, where visitors can see the system at work.