T. Allan Comp, Ph.D.
AMD&ART: Earthworks to Waterworks with a Community Base: A Short Homage to Herbert Bayer and “Earthworks”
When I first started talking about this idea that eventually became AMD&ART and won a national EPA Phoenix award among others, I’d show slides of the standard Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) treatment system, basically a series of rectangular ponds, and suggest we might be able to do more. Then I’d show Buster Simpson’s River Roll-Aids, Mel Chin’s Revival Fields and the Richards/Oppenheimer/Hargraves Bixby Park – but it was the images I had from Herbert Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks that finally got through to the audience. Here was a real problem with a real and art-full solution – it worked to solve the environmental problem and it worked to address something in the human soul as well. I showed Earthworks empty and I showed it full of people and, finally, my audiences started to understand how we might start with rectangular ponds to solve an environmental problem and grow that idea into a 35-acre park that treated AMD, created new wetlands and a new active recreation area while also addressing a need for deeper historical understanding and a more humane connection between past, present and even future. It was Herbert Bayer’s pioneering Earthworks that opened the door for AMD&ART.
In all the AMD&ART materials, you will consistently see a small statement following the AMD&ART name, "Artfully Transforming Environmental Liabilities Into Community Assets." We take that goal seriously. We think “art-full” approaches open new perspectives and new constituencies to environmental projects. For the Arts, we returned to the academic definition which includes writers, designers, sculptors, historians, anthropologists, visual arts and many other unfortunately compartmentalized disciplines. We seek to transform these environmental projects by crossing disciplines to form better, more holistic approaches. Finally, we seek to find the ways to make these multidisciplinary collaborations produce assets (i.e., environmental projects) that people will want, projects that can delight the senses, engage the mind, honor the past, nourish nature and the soul simultaneously, and create viable models for other projects to follow. A lasting solution to the complex problems of environmental reclamation must be cultural and environmental. A scientific solution may clean the water, but a multidisciplinary solution has the power to both clean the water and to revive community spirit.
The project started in the small town of Vintondale, Pennsylvania, in the Appalachian coal country, one of America's forgotten places and perhaps its most neglected ecosystem. Among many other problems, Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) is acknowledged by the EPA as the largest water quality problem in this region, afflicting thousands of miles of streams and their communities. I suggest it is also the most emblematic of coal country environmental issues. The rust-orange sediment left by AMD is the orange, silent signature of dying communities, lost biodiversity, and lost opportunity; the emblematic color of slow death. As the surface expression of vast underground industrial activity (coal mining) now abandoned, one writer aptly described AMD as the "gangrenous puss of deep earth wounds."
Years earlier, I’d learned a lot about the work of others in public art, thanks to two Individual Fellowships from the Design Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts, a Hirsch Farm Artist Residency and a Bridge Residency at the Headlands Center for the Arts. So I went looking for a team that could work with me on this quest. It would be avowedly inter- and multi-disciplinary. Our team would start with a real understanding based in history, engage serious sculptors and designers in the entire process, and make sure we had solid science at every stage. We would work closely with the community so their aspirations would be fully translated into the form and substance of the project. We would keep our process open to solutions that not only fixed the immediate environmental problem, but opened opportunity for broader engagement. Most important, it simply could not fail. Failure has happened too often in this region.
Fifteen years later, AMD&ART is a nationally recognized model for partnerships and trans-disciplinary work – and a lot more. AMD&ART shows that reclamation can be a celebration, an overt and visible effort by our own generation, a chance to artfully redeem a legacy now too-often identified with mountains of waste coal, rust-coated streams, and economic depression, but equally responsible for the nation building, community development and personal achievement that made this country great. We've proven that treatment systems can become gardens, native plant arboretums, and places of learning. We can create wetlands of wondrous living complexity and transform industrial site remnants into historical reminders, or "ghosts" that invite reflection. Once-passive community members have become advocates for their new community place — a reclamation project that addresses the environmental problems and the people, bringing fresh perspectives and a stronger community – the good people of Kent should find that familiar.
Vintondale, Pennsylvania, our project site, is a small coal patch town in Cambria County, some 15 miles northeast of Johnstown, nestled deep in the Blacklick Creek Valley. Created by the Vinton Coal Company in the early 20th century, Vintondale is a community whose history was defined by underground mining and vast surface works, yet the tangible reminders of this once-proud past are largely gone. In the 1950's, the last deep mine in Vintondale closed forever. By the 1980s, the colliery site was the town dump. At the northern edge of the site is the old railroad right-of-way, today known as the Ghost Town Rail Trail, which attracts approximately 75,000 hikers and bicyclists annually, a major factor in selecting this site for restoration. The South Branch of Blacklick Creek, a river severely impacted by AMD, curves around the eastern and southern boundaries of the park and separates it from the town.
To begin the restoration of environmental and community dignity alike, a sequence of wetland cells shaped to fit the topography mark the beginning of the treatment system at the eastern edge of the property. The AMD discharge (50-400 gpm, 2.8 pH) moves through this series of wetland cells, then through a Vertical Flow Pond and a final settlement cell. From there it flows, cleansed of its metallic pollutants and neutralized to a healthy pH, into seven acres of new wetlands. Surrounding the treatment system, planted bands of native trees form our “Litmus Garden,” their fall colors reflecting the increasing health of the water, transitioning from deep red to orange, to yellow, then to silver-green alongside the system. This native tree arboretum also creates the opportunity for a fall festival celebrating the Litmus Garden's peak color and Vintondale's recovery.
Beyond the AMD Treatment System, in an area where black boney coal waste once barely supported scrubby grasses and stunted trees, a new 7-acre wetland environment is attracting a variety of birds and wildlife. That environment also reveals the foundation remains of the old Vinton Colliery structures and this, our “History Wetlands,” creates new opportunities for deeper understanding. At the center of the AMD&ART Park, we are working with the community to build an active recreation area -- a place filled with baseball, soccer, horseshoes, volleyball, picnic tables, and a pavilion – a renewed center of community activity.
At the site of the original Mine #6 portal, we reconstructed the heavy timber frame of the mine opening and filled the opening with a polished black slab etched with the life-size images of miners taken from 1930's film footage of a shift change at Mine #6. Across the Ghost Town Trail from the portal, a 15 by 25-foot platform at grade will become a mosaic map of the entire site, drawn from a 1928 Sanborn Insurance map, opening better understanding of the mine surface works and the surrounding community. At the point where the now-clean water returns to the river, a new installation (whose design was selected from a just-completed national student competition) will mark the place of this victory.
Visitors to Vintondale’s AMD&ART Park can walk on interpretive trails that draw together historical information, the science behind passive AMD treatment and the newly healed ecosystem that now thrives in the wake of remediation. I hope residents and visitors alike will gain new perspective on the resilience of nature and the ability of humans to work with the environment in a healing process that creates a new community center. The physical presence of the energized place will symbolize the success of community residents in healing these waters, not only by completing a job never imagined by past generations, but also by creating a new asset for their own families and future.
I think there are lessons in AMD&ART successes in Vintondale that can be applied much more broadly. Most importantly, restoring streams contaminated by AMD, or reclaiming any other environmentally devastated area in which people have a stake, benefits from more than technical fixes — sustainable reclamation needs to be more than just a science project. Engaging local citizens in multidisciplinary collaborations that address environmental problems invites healing and creates new pride. I also hope we are establishing a new role for artists and humanists (like me) as well, not as solitary visionaries, but as participants; not as some ultimately mystical or magical process, but an important, useful perspective; not as arbitrator, but as co-worker; one among many disciplines, all equally necessary (but none sufficient!) to the recovery and revitalization of this region and its peoples.
To heal our mine-scarred lands, our streams and our communities, we must engage the public in such a way that we create widespread demand for environmental improvement and the better quality of life that a healthy place can provide. To re-conceptualize AMD treatment in this way is to create a paradigm shift -- we really can transform environmental liabilities into community assets! Today, there is another AMD&ART-like project on the campus of the University of Virginia at Wise and many others use AMD&ART as a catalogue of ideas for their own sites – much like I used Earthworks as an inspiration for the beginnings of AMD&ART. Perhaps more important, reclamation and watershed restoration projects are using AMD&ART as a model that brings science, the arts and the humanities — and real interdisciplinary collaboration — into the environmental planning process. AMD&ART is demonstrating that reclamation, creatively designed and developed with the help of many partners, can address environmental challenges and strengthen a sense of place and pride, bringing all partners new and more positive connections to both past and future. Bayer’s “Earthworks” and its continued survival as a seamless blend of both environmental solution and artful creation will inspire other projects in many places for generations.
Jo Hanson, the pioneering public artist in San Francisco, once described Allan as "a relaxed blend of John Muir, John Dewey and John the Baptist." He holds a Ph.D. in the History of Technology and American Economic History; worked for several years as a cultural resources manager with the National Park Service, left that to work as a developer of historic properties and a consultant to historic preservation projects, and then to work for a regional Heritage Area in western Pennsylvania where he invented the AMD&ART project. Always a volunteer for AMD&ART, his work attracted the attention of other watershed and community improvement projects, particularly in mining areas, as well as arts and humanities funding sources from throughout the country.
T. Allan Comp is the winner of multiple awards in partnerships and planning, including the first EPA Phoenix Award ever given to a mine-scarred lands project for community impact. Recently named a Purpose Prize Fellow by Civic Ventures, his earlier accomplishments include two NEA Individual Fellowships in the Design Arts, several arts residencies, research fellowships in history and national awards for community place-planning. Comp developed and now directs the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team (now 55 full-time VISTA positions in 8 states) and Co-Chairs the Mine Scarred Lands Initiative (integrating the work of multiple federal agencies on reclamation) at the Office of Surface Mining in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
1, 2. Before and after photos of Acid Mine Drainage & Art, Project for Vintondale, 1995 – 2005. Situated on thirty-five acres of reclaimed mine land next to the South Branch of Blacklick Creek in Vintondale, Pennsylvania. The project team includes T. Allan Comp, Ph.D., Project Director and Historian; Stacy Levy, Sculptor; Julie Bargmann, Landscape Designer; Robert Deason, Hydrogeologist and several successive generations of AmeriCorps members and community volunteers.
Orion Magazine, November-December, 2007