First In, Last Out

Part 3
Read Part 1 and Part 2

Once a coal operation has been completed, the land is restored to other uses. Whether a former coal mine becomes a farm or a highway, surveyors are key to the process.

By Nancy Luse
f you’re making a wedding cake, it doesn’t look all that pretty in a bowl being mixed up,” said Lantz Rankin, PS, SU, president of Heritage Technical Associates, Inc., in Chapmanville, West Virginia. But once the eggs, flour, and sugar are blended, baked, and decorated with icing rosettes, there’s something to appreciate.

Although it’s a stretch between a delicate wedding cake and the dirty, rough and tumble of mining coal, Rankin believes the same analogy can apply. Once the land has been reclaimed, the former coal mine often becomes acres of grass and trees.

Rankin, whose work is mainly with surface mines, sheepishly admitted that his favorite part of the process is the middle when he’s there for all the blasting and hauling. “Maybe it has to do with that’s the way boys are—we like playing with our trucks in the sandbox.” Still, “I also like it when we reclaim an area, seeing the deer and the turkeys coming back; that’s really neat to me.”

Just as surveyors are crucial in establishing mines and are required throughout the mining process itself, they are just as important during the last phase.  At the risk of stating the obvious, a mine is closed “when the reserves are exhausted,” Rankin said. The company “may decide that it’s not economically feasible to continue, or maybe there are geological conditions” that come into play. “At this time a surveyor would complete the final map that goes to state and federal regulatory agencies. The maps are there for the future.”

As they do in the first phase of the surface mine process, Rankin said his crews use a reflectorless transit while doing the final mapping, “so they can be back away from danger.” When you’re talking about a wall that’s 100 to 200 feet high or even higher, there are rocks coming down, and “it’s not real comfortable if you’re the rod man standing there.”

After the mapping, the coal company goes about the task of reclaiming the area, a process that Rankin said could take three to six months; regulations state that it must be done within 180 days.

A surveyor is needed when land is moved, making sure the grades are proper and that drainage control measures—the ponds and ditches—follow suit. “For the most part we try to re-plant it in trees; that’s the common practice,” he said, and his company has added providing trees as part of its services. Trees have especially been promoted with the passage of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, he said.

“They want the hills back and with trees on them.” However, “the thing about restoring with trees is that it’s a long-term investment—I’ll never see them all grown in my lifetime. I don’t mind grasses, it looks good and it’s green and grass keeps the sediment out of water courses.” But whether it’s grasses or trees, Rankin said, “After a reclamation is done you would not even be able to see where any of the mine openings were.” 

Another example of what government officials consider a successful reclamation was one done in early 2000 in Schuykill County, Pennsylvania, where environmental and safety hazards were turned “into a wildlife paradise,” according to officials. “The site was characterized by dangerous highwalls, large spoil piles, and acid mine drainage. The area was dangerous for hunters, an eyesore for the community, and an environmental liability” until the restoration was completed.

The 160 acres of abandoned surface mines dated from World War II and contained pits that were 20 to 80 feet deep. The reclamation eliminated unsafe mine openings and more than 98,200 linear feet of highwalls. Wetlands were created and felled trees used as brush piles for wildlife habitat. 

More than Pretty Scenery

It isn’t only game lands, forests, and farms that replace mining operations. Schools, highways, housing developments, and businesses are also going in after the coal has come out.
Rankin said a prime example of turning abandoned surface mines into something beneficial is the King Coal Highway Project in southern West Virginia that state officials and others say has the potential for opening up unused lands for future development—land once considered to be too remote for commercial, industrial, or residential uses.

Ground was broken in October 2000 for the 90-mile, four-lane highway to serve the Indian River Industrial Park as well as other ventures, including a federal prison. As these uses expand, say officials, commercial prospects will also increase, particularly around the highway’s interchanges. But given West Virginia’s rough topography, the interchanges may not accommodate large projects such as shopping malls and would “thus work in favor of the existing downtown areas,” according to a news release from the state. Officials added that the new industries and commercial ventures would in turn stimulate housing construction for the new employees.

A portion of the King Coal Highway has opened, and Rankin’s impressed with the theory behind it. He points out that building highways always calls for moving land, and here the land has already been moved for coal, “so why not take advantage of that and put in a highway?”

Heritage Technical Associates, Inc. has been involved in laying out a small housing development over reclaimed land, and in southern West Virginia “we did the boundary survey and topo” for a plant that will process coal into diesel fuel. “This plant could be a fundamental game-changer when you think about energy independence, and it will provide needed jobs. We’ve shipped coal out of here all these years, and it’s pretty neat to be able to keep it here and make it into gas.”

When it comes to reclamation of deep mines, Marshall Robinson, PS, owner of Allegheny Surveys in Birch River, West Virginia, said it’s as simple as “pushing dirt over the faces and covering it up,” referring to the mine openings. “We have to seal the mines, sometimes using a wet seal that allows water to drain out.” Water coming out is tested to make sure it’s clean, and in most cases, Robinson said, it’s almost like spring water.

Rankin added, “We have to ensure that no one can get inside. We backfill and reseed it.” Robinson said, “You can drive by and never even know there once was a mine there.”

The Future of Coal

Ask Robinson about the future of coal mining and the surveyors who support it, and his first opinion is “it depends on politics.” He said coal reserves in West Virginia can “go a couple of hundred years,” but tougher government mine regulations as well as strict oversight of coal-fired plants will be what limit the amount of coal coming out of the ground.

“But it is a finite resource and it’s unrealistic, even for hard-core coal people, not to seek other energy sources,” he said, predicting more development of natural gas—“but it doesn’t employ as many people as coal mining.”

Looking specifically at the surveying part of the process, Rankin said, “the average age for a professional surveyor is in the 50s and I’m concerned about that—where are the surveyors going to come from?” He said that to become licensed according to West Virginia law, “you have to know boundary, and most won’t be able to get that” by just sticking to mine surveying, which pays more.

Robinson, who often talks about how the fine coal dust settles onto and under your skin, becoming a part of you over the years, shed the romantic notions for a dose of cold reality. “Everyone knew when people started digging that it would end,” he said.


About the Author

  • Nancy Luse, Assistant Editor
    Nancy is a freelance writer in Frederick, Maryland.

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