Unpleasant legacies of environmental degradation can be found all across the United States, including right here in Central Pennsylvania. Some of these legacies are many decades old, others are being created here and now.
Poorly reclaimed coal mines from long ago are still a source of acid mine drainage and contaminated ground water, despite extraordinary local efforts by groups like the Altoona Water Authority and the Blair County Conservation District. Even though the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has an extensive storage tank cleanup program, groundwater contamination from leaking oil and gasoline tanks remains a problem.
In spite of DEP's successful "Brownfield" remediation program to cleanup abandoned industrial sites and the hazardous chemicals often left behind, resulting contamination is still unacceptably common around such facilities. Such sites are often a source of visual blight as well. Several notable examples can be seen right here in Altoona and Blair County. They degrade communities and discourage new development and investment in those neighborhoods. These abandoned buildings can also be a direct financial drain on local governments, as counties and municipalities are often forced to pay for cleanups and demolition. The Russo Building on 31st Street in Altoona is a recent example right here in Altoona. While some of these problems have been addressed by regulatory improvements and successful government programs to clean up these liabilities, this legacy building continues.
Some illegal dumps in Blair County have been active for decades. Dumps near Wopsy Lookout, in Sinking Valley and the mountainside in Frankstown Township all had waste that was many decades old. Yet illegal dumping continues. As testimony to this, local officials have investigated six major dumping incidents since last autumn. Even what we thought was "legal" disposal has its legacies. The old Delta/Stotler Landfill north of Altoona was named a Super Fund toxic waste site in the eighties and monitoring continues today to assure that the toxins do not migrate elsewhere.
Unexpected legacies may be created by some of our current energy production activities. Just as there were unintended consequences of extensive coal mining, it is feared that there will be long term damage done by fracking for gas in Marcellus Shale. Similarly, many remain concerned about the future of wind energy generation. Despite being a renewable source of energy that does not generate air pollutants, windmills can degrade forestland, destroy habitat and generate considerable noise pollution. Skeptics also fear that wind farms could be the next generation's industrial "Brownfields" if subsidies are discontinued or they are abandoned for any reason.
With a history of so many environmental legacies, we would be well served to learn a few lessons from our past. Understanding the problems and establishing the personal habits and public policy to address them is the key.