Current and Recent Research Areas
- Biomass / Bioenergy Production on Reclaimed Coal Mines
- Mine Reforestation
- Mine Soils
- Restoration of Streams and Hydrology on Mined Landscapes
- Total Dissolved Solids in Mine Water Discharges and Streams
Biomass/Bioenergy Production on Reclaimed Coal Mines
Increasing raw material demands worldwide, new technologies for converting cellulosic materials into liquid fuels, and climate-related concerns with fossil-fuel carbon emissions all have the potential to dramatically increase demands for bioenergy feedstock products over coming decades. Soils on reclaimed mine areas in central Appalachia can be highly productive when non-compacted and managed for woody material production. These soils are deeper than native mountain soils, rich in nutrient cations, often have favorable textures and pH, occur over extensive areas, and generally have not been placed in economically valued uses. This research seeks to determine the potential of reclaimed mine areas to support fast-growing herbaceous and woody crops for their biomass crops biomass production potentials; and to develop reclamation and management strategies that will maximize those potentials.
Results of research conducted under the leadership of James Burger demonstrates that hybrid poplar far outyields commonly used reclamation species such as native hardwoods and eastern white pines on reclaimed mine. This result is not surprising, given that poplars (genus Populus) and their hybrids are the fastest growing trees within the temperate zone and are widely considered to be the premier woody perennial candidate for bioenergy feedstock production. With additional involvement by Virginia Tech foresters A. Brunner and J. Munsell, the research has been expanded to evaluate and compare 97 genotypic varieties of hybrid poplar for production, agronomic, and wood-quality characteristics when grown on reclaimed mine areas; and to compare the biomass production capabilities of hybrid poplar to other fast-growing species that yield denser biomass materials.
Research on mine reforestation during reclamation operations has been conducted by James Burger of the Virginia Tech Department of Forestry since the Powell River Project’s beginning in 1980. During the 1980s, the focus of that research was softwood timber, especially eastern white pine; but in the early 1990s, Dr. Burger switched his focus to native hardwoods. When the research began in 1980, the researchers thought that mined areas were “moonscapes” where it would be a challenge to get anything to grow, so they started with pines. They soon learned that mined areas have the potential to be highly productive forests.
With this fact in mind, they established 3 goals for the Powell River Project reforestation research program:
- Bigger trees: a resource for land owners, the environment, and the community.
- Reduced reclamation costs: essential for utilization of research results by the mine operator.
- Regulatory compliance: the mining operator must comply with SMCRA and the state regulatory program.
With funding and cooperation provided by the Powell River Project, the coal industry, and federal agencies such as the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and U.S. Department of Energy, Dr. Burger and his colleagues have conducted an extensive research program that is focused on meeting these three goals. A primary research finding is that mining can produce lands that will support high-quality and productive forests when appropriate reclamation techniques are utilized. Research by Dr. Burger and colleagues at other universities has resulted in the development of a new reclamation method, called the Forestry Reclamation Approach, which is now being used widely by the coal industry in Virginia and other states.
Mine Soil Weathering
Most mine soils are constructed from overburden materials, which are essentially rocks that were formed from sediments at the bottoms of water bodies hundreds of millions of years ago. The mining process fractures these rock materials, which have not been subjected to the environmental processes that occur on the earth surface, into small pieces and places them on the surface where they react with oxygen from the atmosphere, water, and acids and other compounds that circulate in the environment. They are also affected by biological processes as growing plants become established. The result of these forces is a change in chemical and physical properties with time, a process that is known as soil weathering.
Under the leadership of W. Lee Daniels, of the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, this research seeks to gain a better understanding of weathering processes, and especially how those processes influence the success reclamation and environmental protection operations conducted by coal mines. One result of weathering processes is that, with time, the overburden materials come to be more like soils and less like the raw rocks from which the originated. This change in properties can affect quality of the soil materials as a plant-growth medium, especially its suitability for sensitive species such as the native hardwood forest species that are currently emphasized by coal industry reclamation practices in Virginia.
Another current concern of direct relevance to Dr. Daniels’ research is the water quality of streams that drain reclaimed mine areas. As the spoil materials weather, they release mineral constituents as salts to the environmental waters that move through them. This release affects the quality of groundwaters and of surface water streams draining the area. Substances released to mine drainage waters by weathering processes include constituents that are common as elements of the earth crust and environmental waters worldwide – elements such as calcium, magnesium, sodium and sulfate, the primary components of the water quality measure known as total dissolved solids – and elements that occur at very low concentrations but nonetheless are of significant environmental concern, such as selenium.
A major focus of Dr. Daniels’ research is to determine how various spoil materials differ in their rates of weathering and dissolved salt release to mine drainage waters.
Mine Soil Construction and Development
Under the leadership of W. Lee Daniels and Dan Amos of the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, the Powell River Project became a national leader research addressing mine soil construction and development.
Dan and Lee prepared soil maps of the area that has since become the Powell River Project Education Center between 1980 and 1982. They observed a wide range of the soils’ biological productivities on the reclaimed mine areas. Analysis demonstrated clearly that the primary factors limiting soil productivity in most areas were physical – soil compaction. When mine soils are compacted by heavy machinery, they become so dense that root growth cannot take place and water movement is hindered.
In 1981, Dan Amos and Lee Daniels worked with a mining operator at the Education Center, Ring Brothers, to construct the Controlled Overburden Placement experiment. They used sandstones and siltstones from the active mining operation to construct uncompacted research plots of known spoil composition. Some plots were constructed of pure sandstone spoils, others of siltstone spoils, and still others of mixtures between the two. In addition, some plots constructed of a sandstone/siltstone mix also received various surface treatments: a six-inch depth of topsoil; sawdust; and sewage sludge at several different rates. Working with James Burger (Department of Forestry), they established two different types of vegetation on each plot: grasses suitable for grazing (tall fescue), and pines.
Experimental results showed that sandstone spoils, and sandstone/siltstone mixes, are capable of supporting greater vegetative growth than pure siltstone spoils, due to differences in moisture infiltration and retention and chemical characteristics. The high-pH, high-soluble-salt rooting environment of the siltstone spoils had a very negative effect on the pines. Biosolid soil amendments had a favorable effect on tall fescue productivity, but not the pines.
The Controlled Overburden Placement experiment remains in place on the Powell River Project Education Center site, where it is the oldest continuously monitored, replicated reclamation research site in the country.
Mine Soil Mapping
In 1998, Dr. Daniels and colleagues began a new phase of research in close cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), which had just begun a multiple-year effort to prepare updated soil surveys for Virginia’s coal counties, and Virginia Soil Survey. Using their own experience and the results of completed research, the investigators began developing soil interpretation and mapping protocols for mined landscapes. They continued this work by mapping mine soils at the Powell River Project Research and Education Center, working closely with NRCS to aid application of these soil mapping concepts in ongoing soil surveys in Buchanan, Wise, and Dickenson Counties. The researchers found that existing soil series concepts for mine soil mapping, which were developed in northern West Virginia, were not always descriptive of soil series in Virginia’s mined areas, and they have recommended new soil series for use in mined areas to NRCS.
Restoration of Streams and Hydrology on Mined Landscapes
Coal mining in Appalachia is controversial for a number of reasons, including the surface hydrology effects. Flooding occurs commonly in Appalachian landscapes, and mining activities have been blamed in some cases for increasing the severity of flood events. Other mining-related hydrologic questions concern the disturbance of streams by surface coal-mining operations, which is inevitable given the scale of such operations and the intricacy of hydrologic patterns in Appalachian landscapes. There is much public concern with the cumulative effects of surface coal mining in surface hydrology in heavily mined Appalachian landscapes.
Coal mine reclamation practices have advanced, in many respects, over the past decade. For example, The Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) is a reclamation method that has been developed through scientific research for the purpose of reestablishing native hardwood forests on coal surface mines, and FRA reclamation is now common in several Appalachian states. It is well known that vegetation and land cover influence hydrologic characteristics of natural landscapes. However, mine reclamation methods are typically not evaluated for surface hydrology effects, and the effect of surface vegetation / land cover on the hydrology of mined landscapes has not been studied.
Another major mine reclamation advance concerns stream restoration. In previous years, streams disturbed by mining were commonly constructed to serve primarily as water conveyances, using a reconstruction method known as rock lined channels. Today, most streams are reconstructed using a technique known as Natural Stream Channel Design, which seeks to reconstruct the pools, riffles, and other habitat features of undisturbed streams, with the goal of restoring the ecological functions that were lost due to the original stream disturbance. However, the science of stream reconstruction on coal mines is still in its early stages, and research to evaluate if, how, and how rapidly these natural landscape / undisturbed stream processes and functions are restored has not been investigated.
Of course, these two concerns – effects of mine reclamation practices on landscape hydrologic function, and effectiveness of restoration practices used to reconstruct streams in mined landscapes – are closely connected. Research to address these issues is being initiated by an interdisciplinary team led by Dr. Stephen Schoenholtz, Virginia Water Resources Research Center and Department of Forestry, which will also involve Jack Webster (Biological Sciences), Kevin McGuire (Water Center, and Department of Forestry). The research goal is to gain better understanding of reconstructed hydrologic and stream processes on coal surface mines, so as to enable improved restoration procedures by the coal mining industry.
Total Dissolved Solids in Mine Water Discharges and Streams
Elevated concentrations of Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in streams occur due to mining operations and are becoming an environmental quality issue of concern in Virginia and to the US EPA. Powell River Project is address total dissolved solids issues with two related research projects
Source Control at Mine Sites
Research by Dr. W. Lee Daniels (Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences) is determining the properties of mine spoils that contribute to elevated TDS levels. This work will aid industry efforts reduce TDS-related water quality impacts by mining operations. Dr. Daniels has initiated research intended to characterize various mine spoil materials for their TDS generation potentials, and to develop quick tests that can be applied to these materials by mining consultant laboratories to characterize their TDS generation potentials as routine procedures. The researchers expect that these tests can be applied by coal mining firms to discriminate mine spoil types based on their potential to generate TDS. Such results should enable mining firms to handle mine spoils as needed to limit TDS in waters emerging from the mine site.
Total Dissolved Solids in Streams
Powell River Project research led by Stephen Schoenholtz of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center has developed an innovative and proactive research effort to determine how TDS in streams affects aquatic biota. The research is being conducted cooperatively with two co-sponsors: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. The coal industry is providing access to field sites.
Past Research: Mine Reclamation and Environmental Protection
- Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation – Remining
- Acid Mine Drainage Impacts
- Acid Mine Drainage Remediation
- Christmas Trees
- Coal Combustion Products
- Coal Refuse Reclamation
- Ecosystem Development and Wildlife Habitat
- Land Development for Housing and Industry
- Livestock Forages and Production
- Mine Planning
- Slope Stability – Approximate Original Contour
- Stream Restoration – Compensatory Mitigation
- Turfgrass Establishment
- Vegetable Production on Reclaimed Mines
Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation – Remining
Abandoned mine lands (AML) are areas that were mined for coal prior to the federal mine reclamation law (the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, or SMCRA, was signed into law in 1977) and were not adequately reclaimed. AML present hazards to health and safety, and the environment. SMCRA established a tax on active coal-mining operations for the purpose of raising funds to support reclamation of AML. The federal AML reclamation funds allocated to Virginia are inadequate to reclaim Virginia’s abandoned mine areas; approximately 50,000 acres of abandoned mine lands remain unreclaimed in Virginia today.
The most cost-effective time to reclaim AML is often the time when an active mining operation is in the area, as operating equipment and excess spoil can be made available. Once an area has been mined without fully reclaiming AML, the chances that such an area will ever be reclaimed declines significantly.
Powell River Project research has addressed policies to encourage reclamation of abandoned mine lands (AML) by active mining operations. Active cooperation among Powell River Project, Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, U.S. Office of Surface Mining, and the Virginia coal industry has resulted in a more favorable climate for AML reclamation by active mining operations in Virginia today, and a number of AML areas have been reclaimed successfully.
Despite this progress, current laws and regulations still discourage active mining operatations to avoid permitting those AML areas that present the worst environmental problems, due to potential liabilities.
Acid Mine Drainage Impacts
Don Cherry, of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biology, has been working to characterize the impacts of acid mine drainage (AMD) on aquatic ecosystems since 1994. The goal of that first project was to characterize the aquatic ecosystem impacts of AMD from abandoned mines in the Clinch and Powell River watersheds. This first project was co-sponsored by Powell River Project, and the Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Chapter. The results of this work were utilized by Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy in 1996 to identify two high-priority sites for reclamation under the U.S. Office of Surface Mining “Clean Streams Initiative” program. One of the two high-priority sites is being reclaimed with Clean Streams Initiative funds; the other site is being reclaimed through a combination of remining by an active operation and Clean Streams Initiative expenditures.
Since 1996, Dr. Cherry has continued his research on the impacts of acid mine drainage from abandoned mines, with sponsorship funds provided by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy and the U.S Army Corps of Engineers. Dr. Cherry is currently working with the Army Corps’ Powell River Ecosystem Study, which is expected to result in allocation of substantial federal funds to reclaim abandoned mines in the Powell River watershed. The current focus of this research is the prioritization of sites within Powell River sub-watersheds for reclamation by use of an Ecotoxicological Rating (ETR) system. The ETR incorporates chemical, toxicological, and ecological data to provide a single number that describes the relative environmental status of a given site within a sub-watershed. Ratings range from 0 to 100, and stations are categorized based on percentiles similar to that used in an academic grading system. A score of greater than 90 percent suggests excellent aquatic habitat relative to other stations in the area, 80 to 89 is above average, 70 to 79 is average and so on. Stations with ratings equivalent to a below average (D) or failing (F) grade receive the greatest emphasis for reclamation
Other current research activities include investigation of ecosystem effects of AMD beyond the zone of pH depression. While a number of investigators have documented that the combination of acidic pH and metals negatively affect aquatic communities, Dr. Cherry’s recent work has shown that aquatic communities may be significantly impacted by AMD in neutral waters below acidic tributaries. Metals released by the AMD are hydrolyzed when the pH increases due to dilution by receiving streams, resulting in precipitation of metals on the stream substrate. While precipitated metals are carried downstream adsorbed to sediment particles, potentially contributing to bioaccumulation of metals by aquatic organisms, the dissolved, hydrolyzed metals in the process of forming precipitates may actually cause acute toxicity up to a mile downstream of the confluence of the acidic tributary. Efforts also have been made to quantify the effects of AMD impacted sub-watersheds on the Powell River watershed by investigating metal bioaccumulation from water to sediment and periphyton to Asian clams as a surrogate test species for native freshwater mussels. This work may contribute to the understanding of the cause of the native mussel decline in the watershed.
Acid Mine Drainage Remediation
Powell River Project has been conducting research on acid mine drainage treatment since the early 1990s.
Dr. Albert Hendricks, Virginia Tech Biology Department, installed the first subsurface-flow “wetland” (commonly known as SAPS or successive alkalinity producing systems) to treat acid mine drainage at an abandoned sulfide mine near Galax, Virginia in 1987. In 1991 working with Powell River Project and Westmoreland Coal Company, he installed a similar system to treat acidic leachate from a coal-refuse disposal site in Wise County. That system remains in operation today.
In 1998 and 1999, graduate student Christopher Jage, working with Carl Zipper and Dr. Albert Hendricks, developed design guidelines for SAPS systems. These guidelines provide a means for predicting the degree of water-quality renovation likely to result from construction of a SAPS system of a given size, given influent water quality and flow assumptions. The scientific basis for these guidelines is currently in the process of academic review.
Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-116 Growing Christmas Trees on Surface Mined Lands. provides guidelines for growing marketable Christmas trees on reclaimed surface mine sites. It is based on the authors’ experiences, observations, and research data collected from several Christmas tree plantations established and maintained at the Powell River Project Education Center. As long as soil properties are favorable, reclaimed mines are quite capable of producing marketable Christmas trees. As on natural soils, good management is a key to producing Christmas trees profitably.
Coal Combustion Products
Between 1992 and 1997, the major focus of the coal combustion product research directed by Lee Daniels at Virginia Tech was the co-blending of alkaline ash with acidic refuse as a means of eliminating acid mine drainage production by refuse fills. The researchers concluded that this practice could be effective over the long term only if the amount of alkalinity in the ash is sufficient to offset the acidity in the refuse. If the ash contains insufficient alkalinity, and the refuse-ash mixture turns acidic, metals can be released in drainage by both the refuse and the ash materials. These results are summarized in Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-134, The Potential for Beneficial Reuse of Coal Fly Ash in Southwest Virginia Mining Environments.The research also evaluated the potential to use ash as a soil amendment to improve the revegetation potentials of acidic soils.
Dr. Daniels renewed this research emphasis in 2004, and is characterizing a range of coal combustion products for properties influencing their potential for reuse and disposal in mined land environments.The properties of coal combustion products are affected by air-pollution control technologies utilized by coal-burning utilities. In response to changing air-quality control requirements of the late 1990s and early 2000s, selective catalytic reduction is now being employed by many coal-burning plants to limit nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, use of desulfurization scrubbers to reduce sulfur oxide (SOx) emissions is expanding, and regulations to require mercury emissions control have been implemented. All of these technologies change the character of the ashes and other coal combustion products that are produced by electric utilities. Dr. Daniels research was conducted in partnership with electric power generators that purchase Virginia coal. He conducted an intensive chemical characterization of all elements of current environmental/water quality concern in a large sample set of CCP’s generated from Virginia coals. Activities include sequential fractionations, geochemical modeling, column leaching studies, and greenhouse plant growth bioassays. Results were summarized in a 2007 report entitled Properties and Potential Water Quality Effects of Post-2000 Coal Combustion Products
Coal Refuse Reclamation
Powell River Project guidelines for reclaiming coal refuse are based on extensive research conducted in cooperation with a number of coal-mining firms, including Pittston Coal, Consolidation Coal, Westmoreland Coal, and the former United Coal Company.
Powell River Project guidelines include revegetation strategies such as direct seeding of the refuse, lime application, and topsoil covers of specified thicknesses. Specific strategies are recommended for a given refuse based on the refuse material’s physical and chemical characteristics. Mining firms that use Powell River Project guidelines generally find them to be more cost-effective than conventional refuse-reclamation practices. The guidelines have been demonstrated to be capable of meeting or exceeding regulatory standards for refuse reclamation on permitted refuse-diposal facilities.
Powell River Project coal refuse-reclamation guidelines are described in Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-131, Reclamation of Coal Refuse Disposal Areas.
Ecosystem Development and Wildlife Habitat
Environmental and land use studies have been frequently conducted on reclaimed coal mines, but limited work has been done to determine the response of wildlife populations to reclamation efforts. Land cover and vegetation typically change following the mining process, and post-mining vegetation and habitat may be strikingly different from their former composition. Changes in vegetative cover, vegetation type and composition, soil properties, and topography can provide different resources for wildlife than those available prior to mining.
Impacts of Hollow Fills on Aquatic Communities
The research investigated the impacts of coal-mining hollow fills of various ages on aquatic communities in streams receiving fill drainages, and was led by Don Cherry, of Virginia Tech’s Department of Biology. Monitoring points were located in receiving streams at various distances below the fills, to determine how any observed effects may be mitigated by distance.
The researchers found that aquatic communities below fills differed from one another, and from a reference stream in an unmined watershed. A major factor causing these differences appeared to be the sediment ponds below the fills. These ponds tend to capture organic materials originating from the land vegetation, such as leaves, that serve as primary food sources for aquatic communities, including those which occur within the reference stream. The ponds themselves are generally open to the sun, which creates habitat for photosynthetic algae, while the reference streams which flow through forested areas are shaded; algae produced in the hollow fill ponds is carried into streams draining the ponds. The structure of macroinvertebrate communities below the hollow fills, although different from the communities that found in the reference streams, reflect these differences. Waters draining from the hollow fills were elevated in conductivity, relative to the reference stream.
Effect of Habitat Structure on Bird, Salamander, and Frog Usage
In 2007 and 2008, Virginia Tech graduate student Amy Carrozzino and Fish and Wildlife Conservation faculty Dean Stauffer and Carola Haas monitored wildlife use on reclaimed mine sites of varying ages and post-mining cover types at two locations in southwestern Virginia. Bird, salamander, and frog communities were sampled to gain an understanding of how site use by birds was affected by post-mining vegetation. This information was compared with wildlife communities on nearby reference forests to better understand how mining and reclamation practices affect wildlife. Birds were diverse and abundant in all habitats studied. In total, 80 bird species were observed, with 75 species sighted on mined areas during the breeding season. Thus, it is clear that reclaimed areas provide habitat for many bird species. The types of birds found in each group were similar to what would be expected in habitats on non-mined areas with similar features.
Because of the difficulty of detecting terrestrial salamanders and the drought conditions encountered in both 2007 and 2008, they observed few individuals. When summer months are very dry, many amphibians limit the time they spend on the surface and thus were difficult to observe. The researchers found 6 species of salamanders under cover objects or actively foraging on the surface. Most salamanders were found in mature forest (42 observations) and on pre-SMCRA sites (21 observations). The pre-SMCRA sites had more large deciduous (hardwood) trees than the post-SMCRA reclaimed mine sites where few salamanders were observed. It is possible that salamanders were present on the pre-SMCRA sites because they prefer mature hardwoods, which are the dominant vegetation in their native habitat; some of the pre-SMCRA sites had developing hardwoods. Because salamanders require trees for shading and moist soils, they likely return to reclaimed lands later in the successional process than birds.
The researchers identified 8 frog species at mine ponds or wetlands. Spring peepers were heard most frequently near water bodies and calling from water pockets at the base of pre-SMCRA highwalls. They often heard spring peepers in full chorus, an indication of large popuations, as well as bullfrogs and green frogs at lower call intensities.
Effects of Mine Reforestation on Wildlife Usage
As of the mid-2000s, most Virginia mining firms began using the Forestry Reclamation Approach to re-establish native hardwoods on mine sites. In 2009, Dean Stauffer and graduate student Chris Latimer, of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, began monitoring several reforested mine sites for wildlife usage.
Wetlands as Water Sources
The presence of water on reclaimed mine sites enhances their capability to serve as wildlife habitat. During the early 1990s, Virginia Tech biologist Rob Atkinson and colleagues investigated simple and easily applied techniques for constructing wetlands on mine sites during reclamation. Guidelines were developed for cost-effective construction of wetlands that will function as healthy ecosystems and support wildlife during mine-reclamation operations on SMCRA-permitted mines.
Land Development for Housing and Industry
Surface mine settlement is rapid, relative to the tolerances of most building structures, especially in the years immediately following mining and reclamation. Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-115, Foundations for Housing on Reclaimed Mined Lands, reviews geotechnical and engineering principles that govern settlement of filled lands, such as reclaimed mines, and the distortion of building structures built on such lands.
The most cost-effective surface stabilization measures take place during placement of spoils that will produce the final land surface. Good mine planning can have a positive impact on the cost of such measures. Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-130, Stabilizing Reclaimed Mines to Support Buildings and Development, describes procedures that can be used to stabilize land surfaces created by mining so as to improve suitability for development.
In 1998, Powell River Project worked with Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, and Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority, to assist these agencies’ development of procedures to allow and encourage development of appropriately configured and located mine sites as industrial sites. Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-132 Reclaiming Mined Lands as Industrial Sites, describes planning, permitting, and reclamation procedures that can aid the process of preparing mined areas for use as industrial sites after mining. Both regulatory issues and land development procedures are addressed.
Livestock Forages and Production
When Powell River Project began in 1980, cattle production was not a common use for reclaimed mine areas in Virginia. Since 1980, Powell River Project has maintained a cattle herd at the Education Center in cooperation with PVR Partners L.P. and predecessor companies. The herd has been managed by W.D. Whittier, College of Veterinary Medicine, since the 1980s.
Educational programs focused on cattle nutrition, reproduction, and health are held at Powell River Project Research and Education Center. Over the years, many calves sired by high-quality breeding stock have been sold to local cattle producers. Virginia Tech veterinary students gain field experience by assisting herd management. Use of reclaimed mine areas for cattle production has become more common in the Virginia coalfields over the years. An organization of local producers, the Coalfield Beef Cattle Association, has formed under the leadership of Virginia Cooperative Extension.
A fertile mine soil with physical and chemical properties suitable for supporting plant growth is necessary for successful mined-land revegetation. Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-121, Creation and Management of Productive Minesoils, describes procedures for constructing mine soils with properties suitable to support healthy plant cover.
Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-122 Revegetation Species and Practices, reviews revegetation species suitable for erosion control, hay production, and livestock grazing. Because most mine soils do not contain appreciable quantities of plant-available nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P), managing N and P nutrition is critical to favorable successful revegetation. Principles of N and P nutrition in reclamation are explained in this publication.
Recommended soil construction and revegetation practices for reforestation differ in some ways from hayland/pasture establishment recommendations. Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-123, How to Restore Forests on Surface-Mined Land, describes mine reforestation procedures.
Soils with unfavorable properties for revegetation may require specialized procedures. Practices for reforestation differ in some ways from hayland/pasture establishment recommendations. Virginia Cooperative Extension publication Virginia Cooperative Extension publication 460-131, Reclamation of Coal Refuse Disposal Areas, describes revegetation procedures suitable for coal refuse. These procedures can also be applied to other harsh sites characterized by acid soils.
Nitrogen-fixing legumes such as the clovers and birdsfoot trefoil are an important component of a vegetative community being established on mined lands, because new mine soils typically do not contain a large reservoir of soil nitrogen. Nitrogen applied as fertilizer typically leaches out of the soil profile quite easily. In order for legumes to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen as plant-available forms, root-zone bacteria known as rhizobia must be present. The best way to assure that rhizobia become established with legumes is to add a bacterial inoculant to the hydroseeder mix. Powell River Project research that the survival of these inoculant bacteria can be affected by the chemical characteristics of the hydroseeder slurry. Adding the inoculant to the slurry immediately before spraying, and reducing slurry acidity by adding lime to high-phosphorous slurry mixes, can improve inoculant survival and the subsequent ability of the hydroseeded legumes to fix nitrogen.
Slope Stability – Approximate Original Contour
Stream Restoration – Compensatory Mitigation
With funding provided by Powell River Project and other sources in the 1980s, Mike Karmis (Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering) developed software for use in predicting underground mine subsidence. The software was utilized by mining operators for SMCRA compliance, and by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining for training.
Reclaimed mines are capable of supporting quality turfgrass. Turfgrass typically is typically established adjacent to homes, and is often established adjacent to industrial buildings, regardless of whether or not the buildings are constructed on a reclaimed mine site. Powell River Project maintained high-quality turfgrass plots as a demonstration at the Education Center in Wise County. Jack Hall, Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech, developed turfgrass establishment maintenance guidelines, based on 10 years of research. Virginia Cooperative Extension Publications 460-127, Establishment and Maintenance of Quality Turfgrass on Surface-Mined Land, summarizes these guidelines.
Vegetable Production on Reclaimed Mines
Past Research: Other Research Areas
- Coal Reserves
- Curriculum Development
- Economic Development
- Quality of Life in the Virginia Coalfields
- Powell River Project
- Wastewater Renovation
- Water Resources
- Wood Processing Industries
Erik Westman and Chris Haycocks, Department of Mining and Minerals Engineering at Virginia Tech, initiated a study of Virginia coal reserves in 1996. The goal of this project is to develop an estimate of Virginia’s mineable coal reserves that is responsive to market price. They addressed this goal by assembling public information about coal seam thicknesses at various locations, coal quality, areas where mining has been completed, and impediments to mining such as surface features.
Results have been summarized as follows:
Coal mining and timber are the two primary industries supporting the people of Southwest Virginia. Coal mining has occurred for more than 100 years, but production has dropped since reaching a peak in 1990. In order to properly plan with remaining coal production a study was conducted to characterize and estimate coal resources. Seam thickness was found to be the parameter which most influenced resource levels. An economic model was developed to determine which portion of the reserves could economically be extracted. It was found that 3.95 billion tons, or 14% of the remaining resource, is economic under current mining conditions. More than 60% of these reserves, however, are in deep seams which require shafts to be constructed prior to initiation of mining.
Coal-to-Electricity teacher’s program
The Coal-to-Electricity teacher-education program has been in operation since 1997. Each summer, approximately 20 Virginia classroom teachers participate in a two-week summer instruction program. One week of instruction at Virginia Tech includes presentations by Virginia Tech faculty, and representatives of public agencies and southwest Virginia’s industry. During the second week, teachers visit coal mines, reclamation sites, power plants, and the Powell River Project Education Center in Wise County. Participating teachers gain knowledge that helps them integrate Virginia energy concepts into their classroom teaching programs.
Powell River Project is a major sponsor of the Coal-to-Electricity teacher-education program. Virginia Coal Council plays a major role in the program. Other sponsors include American Electric Power, Center for Energy and Economic Development, CSX Corporation, Norfolk Southern, Pittston Coal, and Virginia Power. Mary Quillen, a former Virginia Tech graduate student and currently a school teacher in Coeburn, Wise County, is the program director. Faculty supervisor is Tom Sherman, Virginia Tech Department of Teaching and Learning.
Teaching Environmental Economics
During the summers of 1997 and 1998, teachers participating in the summer program entitled “Teaching Environmental Economics” developed a workbook of lesson plans centered on coal and electricity. Powell River Project personnel participated in the instructional program, and Project funds were used to print and distribute the workbook.
Quality of Life in the Virginia Coalfields
In 1987, Tom Johnson of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Virginia Tech published “Income Uncertainty and the Quality of Life. A Socio-Economic Study of Virginia’s Coal Counties.” This publication used quantitative quality-of-life indicators to focus attention on measures by which Virginia’s coalfield counties lagged other areas of the state. The work was sponsored by Powell River Project. The publication attracted much attention throughout the state. In 1988, the Lacy Commission was established by the Virginia General Assembly to study southwestern Virginia’s economic plight. In 1989, the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority was established in response to Lacy Commission recommendations.
Powell River Project
Research on the use of mine soils for domestic wastewater renovation has been conducted by Ray Reneau and Charles Hagedorn, Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, since 1990 in close cooperation with Virginia Department of Health. The research sought to identify solutions to wastewater disposal problems that are present in Virginia’s coalfield region. Development of mined lands for residential use is impractical in areas not serviced by public sewers because most reclaimed-mine soils are not suitable for conventional septic drainfields. Many communities lack adequate means for disposal of household sewage.
An initial installation consisted of three prototype systems on a reclaimed mine site: a low-pressure distribution system installed in topsoil fill;
- an artificial “wetland” system that utilizes plants and microbial activity in a gravel substrate to renovate wastewaters
- a low-pressure distribution system in topsoil fill that was transported to the site; and
- a spray irrigation system that would be suitable for isolated areas.
All systems were operated on an experimental basis from 1991 to 1999 and regular site monitoring data document that these experimental systems were able to renovate septic wastewaters effectively.
The researchers also installed a media filter system at the Powell River Project Education Center. This installation was completed in 1998, and began operation in spring, 1999. Media filters have the potential to solve wastewater disposal problems on mined lands and in small communities. A media filter installation for a single home would be more costly than a conventional septic-tank-and-drainfield system,but such a system could be expected to renovate wastewaters effectively where conventional systems may not be suitable. Media filter systems can also be adapted to treat the effluent from several homes using a single system, which would decrease per-household cost.
In 2002, the researchers initiated a field trial on a Wise County coal mine site. This field trial operated successfully for two years. The result of this work is guidelines for on-site wastewater disposal systems that can be operated on reclaimed coal mines. Acceptance of these guidelines by VDH will expand the potential for residential and light commercial development on reclaimed coal-mine sites that are not accessible to public sewers.
Availability of household water supplies are a critical issue in many southwestern Virginia communities. The mountainous terrain and dispersed populations make it costly to extend water lines to many communities. In many areas, groundwater resources are poor in both quantity and quality. Underground coal mining, which began in southwestern Virginia in the 1880s, has affected groundwater aquifers in some areas. Despite considerable public expense to extend water lines, many small, rural communities lack access to clean and healthful water even today. Powell River Project research and Extension programs have been addressing these issues since the 1980s.
In 1984, Blake Ross of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering) surveyed area residents to determine satisfaction with water supplies available to their homes.
In the late 1980s, Powell River Project co-sponsored research entitled “Groundwater Evaluation in the Coalfields of Southwestern Virginia, ” in cooperation with Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (Division of Mined Land Reclamation – VDMLR) and U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS), which included a detailed characterization of Virginia coalfield groundwater resources.
Between 1993 and 1995, Powell River Project and Virginia Cooperative Extension co-sponsored a household water quality testing and information program, led by Blake Ross of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech. This program provided household water analyses and interpretations for 964 families served by wells, springs, and cisterns in seven counties. Parties submitting samples received results of a water quality analysis, and information on how to remedy any water quality problems found to be present. The most common water quality problems found to be present were iron and manganese, hardness, corrosivity, sodium, and bacteria. As a result of this program, many families took measures to protect and improve water quality in their homes.
In 1996, John Randolph of the Department of Urban and Regional Planning conducted an assessment of coalfield water supply and distribution systems. The results of this study were utilized by a General Assembly Commission studying Virginia coalfield water supply problems, led by Virginia Delegate Clarence Phillips. The Virginia Coalfield Water Development Authority resulted from the action of this Commission.
In 1997 and 1998, additional research was conducted by Virginia Water Resources Research Center, under the leadership of Tamim Younos. With Powell River Project sponsorship, the Water Center prepared recommendations used by the State Water Commission to develop a strategic plan to address Virginia coalfield water resource concerns, as required by House Joint Resolution 572. Also in 1998, with Powell River Project funding, the Virginia Water Resource Research Center conducted an assessment of rooftop “rainfall harvest” household water supply systems, more commonly known as cisterns, being used by southwestern Virginia residents.