Overview and Summary

Because of changes in our nation’s energy infrastructure, active coal surface mining and associated land disturbances are declining in the Appalachian coalfields, but significant environmental restoration challenges remain. Scientific expertise at Virginia Tech and other partners, developed through the Powell River Project, is essential to meeting those challenges and maximizing long-term post-mining land use potentials.

Powell River Project researchers are working to improve scientific understanding of mined-land environments; are collaborating with reclamation scientists from other universities; and are working with industry and agencies to develop and apply improved mine reclamation and environmental management methods in southwestern Virginia and throughout the Appalachian mining region.

Powell River Project research helps the coal industry via improved and more cost-effective environmental compliance; helps mine regulatory agencies by informing regulatory policies; and helps Virginia coalfield communities by contributing to science-based environmental management of mining-affected areas. These benefits are achieved through both peer-reviewed scientific research and outreach and education programming.

The Powell River Project also conducts varied outreach and educational programs that communicate research results to the public, to industry, and to agencies; and contributes to undergraduate and graduate education at Virginia Tech.

Reclamation Research

Areas of scientific activity by Powell River Project researchers include the following:

  • Mine soil construction and development.
  • Mined land reforestation.
  • Development of ecosystem processes on reforested mines.
  • Use of organic amendments to improve mine reclamation outcomes.
  • Management of coal combustion products in mined land environments.
  • Management and revegetation of coal refuse.
  • Mitigation and treatment of acid mine drainage discharges.
  • Mine spoil assessment and management for reducing total dissolved solids in mine-water outflows.
  • Aquatic life in mining-influenced streams with elevated total dissolved solids and selenium.
  • Stream reconstruction practices for restoration of ecosystem functions.
  • Assessment and management of vegetation communities that have been colonized by invasive plant species.

Powell River Project researchers conduct field studies at the Project’s Research and Education Center (in Wise County) and at other mine sites throughout the region. The unique mined land resources located at the Project’s Research and Education Center have allowed for several long-term experiments. For example, the Controlled Overburden Placement Experiment (Est. 1982) enables long-term study of mine-soil development and amendment practices, and is believed to be the oldest replicated and continuously maintained and monitored mined land reclamation experiment in the world. Similarly, mine reforestation plots established since the early 1980s enable study of forest ecosystem development on mine sites of various ages and over extended periods of time and differing initial site conditions.

Accomplishments of Virginia Tech faculty working with Powell Rover Project have been widely recognized. For example, the American Society of Mining and Reclamation, a national organization of mine reclamation professionals, has recognized Powell River Project researchers for their ‘outstanding contributions in the areas of mining, teaching, research, and/or regulatory or environmental consulting as it relates to land reclamation’.

Education and Outreach

Powell River Project maintains a Research and Education Center in Wise County, Virginia, where mine reclamation practices developed through research are demonstrated for industry, agencies, and the public. More than 50,000 visits to the Research and Education Center have been recorded since its establishment in 1980.

A series of “how-to” publications published by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service describe practical results of completed research. Powell River Project researchers have also been major contributors to Forest Reclamation Advisory publications by the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative.

Working with the Eastern Coal Council, the Powell River Project regularly contributes to the Coal to Electricity Teacher Education program for K-12 teachers. Participants gain improved ability to integrate energy concepts with instruction that addresses current societal issues concerning energy and the environment.

Working with the Virginia Chapter of the Society for American Foresters and Virginia Cooperative Extension, Powell River Project contributes to the Trees to Products Teacher Education program for K-12 teachers. Participating teachers learn about forest tree production and management concepts, and gain improved ability to integrate those concepts with instruction that concerns current societal issues.

In 2015, the Powell River Project was recognized by the National Mining Hall of Fame. The Hall awarded the Prazen Living Legends of Mining Award to Powell River Project in recognition of outreach and education programming at the Research and Education Center.


Research supported directly by Powell River Project funding, research enabled by grant funding obtained as a result of Project-sponsored research, and research that utilized lands and facilities at Powell River Project Research and Education Center has: