While writing the post on the Silver Lake reservoir, we were reminded of AMD&ART Park in Vintondale, Pennsylvania.
The two share quite a few in common. For instance, both employ constructed wetlands to detoxify contaminated landscapes. In the case of Silver Lake, it is the Los Angeles River's heady stew of 14 EPA-listed chemical pollutants; AMD&ART, for its part, has targeted acid mine drainage (AMD), hence the name. Additionally, both were conceived as pedagogical landscapes, teaching visitors their respective historical context and technologies. As such, they are occupiable open spaces.
There is one major difference though: AMD&ART Park is actually built and has been in operation for almost 15 years.
Beginning in 1994, a multi-disciplinary team — which consisted of T. Allan Comp, a historian and director of the non-profit AMD&ART; Robert Deason, a hydrogeologist; Stacy Levy, a sculptor; AmeriCorps interns; and landscape architect Julie Bargmann, of D.I.R.T. Studio — were tasked to create “a large-scale, artful public space that directly addresses the problems of AMD and much more.”
AMD in the entire Appalachian Region, we read, is “the most widespread water quality problem, as well as a significant economic and social constraint.” Indeed, the EPA has designated it as the biggest environmental problem in the eastern mountains.
Seeping or surging from abandoned coal mines, AMD is the metals-laden water, often acidic, that coats stream beds with orange sediment, killing the bottom of the food chain. Often desolating entire watersheds, these rust colored streams are the consequence of a proud past filled with hard work and dedication in an era that paid little attention to environmental consequences. Today, AMD is a painful reminder of the poverty and economic abandonment that still exists in coal country, the emblematic orange silent signature of dying communities.
The result of the collaboration is, if not innovative, gloriously inspiring.
Several discrete elements make up the park. Located in the eastern part is a passive water treatment system and the so-called Litmus Garden. On the other side is a wetland habitat zone and in between is a recreational area. Interspersed throughout are several art installations, hence the second part of the name, though one could call the whole site an art installation itself.
The treatment zone is easily distinguished by a series of 7 keystone-shaped treatment ponds. No cutting edge nanotechnology or the latest transgenic organism or even heavy machinery is used. Turning the highly toxic water into one that you can swim in is done with elementary physics, chemistry and biology. Regular limestone, for instance, is applied instead to lower the water's acidity. Plants simply dying off and decaying in the winter and then returning in the spring also helps to change its pH level. Even gravity is utilized to help suspended metals settle out of the ADM.
Meanwhile, the function of each ponds are best explained by the following signs, themselves an important component of the park.
Running along these ponds is the Litmus Garden. It plays no role in the water treatment, but it does act as a “visual representation of [the] changing health of the river.”
Small groves or bands of thirteen native tree species were chosen for their autumn foliage colors. In the fall, the Litmus Garden trees will turn deep red around Pond 1 and grade through orange and yellow to blue-green at the end of the treatment system in Pond 6, creating a visual reflection of enhanced water quality — and a great reason for a Vintondale community fall celebration.
It's a horticultural and hydrological rhyming scheme, in other words.
Once cleaned or “legal”, the water is then diverted to a seven-acre wetland built on what was “once the busy industrial heart of Vintondale.”
Once an industrial wasteland, our History Wetlands now serve as home to a growing number of plants and animals. Over 10,000 native wetlands plants have been planted, providing a habitat for many insect and bird species including wood ducks, geese, and killdeer. Beaver, fox, deer, and other animals have also been spotted in the wetlands. Ten bat boxes complement the landscape of our wetlands in anticipation of attracting native bats to the area.
From wasteland back into Eden, albeit with the marks of its exile. And this isn't so much a restoration or a reclamation as it is redemption.
But in any case, knowing what wetlands can do, the water can only get cleaner than when it had left the treatment ponds.
Once the treatment and wetland sections were completed, attention was then turned to developing a multi-purpose, four-acre recreation area that now hosts soccer, baseball, football, and many other outdoor games. “Closely reflecting the aspirations of the very first design meetings with the community, the park is rapidly becoming the new social center of Vintondale, bringing new pride and new activity to the community,” we read.
Parks nowadays seem to be programmed to the hilt and then some. Tomorrow, they'll be asked to save the world.
Meanwhile, Eric Reece, author of Lost Mountain, wrote an article about the park for Orion Magazine. There, he speculates that “one of the most important elements of Vintondale may not be its water-treatment system or its sculptural installations, but rather its function as a potential model for many other such projects across the country.” He quotes T. Allen Comp, the park's project director:
AMD&ART is now both the name of a park in Vintondale and the name of an idea, a commitment to interdisciplinary work in the service of community aspirations to fix the environment.
Indeed, as Reece adds, “since the completion of the park, Comp has established the Appalachian Coal Country Watershed Team, a group of fifty-five OSM and VISTA volunteers who are working with the AMD&ART model to engage coal field communities in projects that will remediate damaged waterways and rekindle the power of place.”
The future can truly be bright.