(To read part I of this two-part series, click here.)
SALEM, Ohio — It may be decades before the area of leftover coal gob near Wills Creek in Muskingum County is back to supporting trees and vegetation. But Bill Jonard, an environmental specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, is committed to that day.
“Granted, not through the course of our lifetime, but the next 40-50 years — our kids’ lifetime — it will come back,” he said.
The state plans to put to bid about 35 public health and safety reclamation projects this year, with an estimated cost of nearly $7.4 million. That’s nearly double the projects bid last year, and nearly four times the funding.
An additional 18 projects will be bid for acid mine drainage cleanup, valued at $6.2 million.
Each abandoned mine site that is funded is generally considered a three-year project.
Altogether, state officials expect to receive about $16.4 million in grant money this year for reclamation, the most in recent history. In 2007, Ohio’s share was about $7.2 million, said Terry Van Offeren, manager of Ohio’s abandoned mine land program.
He said new money is the result of a congressional change to the way coal company taxes are shared among states, and it means good things for reclaiming Ohio’s mine land.
“Number one, it allows us to greatly expand our efforts on public safety and environmental problems,” he said.
And the second benefit is jobs. Every $1 million spent is estimated to keep 15 construction workers employed, in addition to field staff.
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Todd Gleydura, an environmental specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, reclaimed a property known as Hays Highwall I in Columbiana County in 2004. Two 30-foot high walls were reduced to a gently sloping hillside, new topsoil was brought in and the area was planted with vegetation. Today, it looks much more like a rolling meadow than anything to do with coal mining.
He’s gearing up for Hays Highwall II near Rogers, Ohio, which presents similar challenges and a nearly 75-foot drop. Nothing will be easy, but Gleydura looks forward to the challenge.
“It’s nice to see the fruits of your labor,” he said. “I take great pride in my work and my job.”
It may be common sense, but state officials can only reclaim mines they know about. Jonard said property owners often are surprised to learn of the state’s interest in abandoned mines and of the state and federally funded projects to reclaim mine land.
Recently, Ohio has increased its call for land owners to help document abandoned mines. Newer technology is leading to the use of global position sensing to locate and document unreclaimed sites.
ODNR mine staff carry hand-held GPS systems comparable in size to an iPad, that tracks the user’s location and shows maps of abandoned underground mines.
To date, the Division of Geological Survey has archived 20,000 individual mine maps and detailed abandonment maps from more than 5,000 mines, according to the ODNR website.
However, abandoned mines are still being found.
“This program has been in place for 30 years and I’m going out and finding some shafts and I’m like, ‘how come these people don’t call us,'” Jonard said. “This is amazing.”
The different types of mine land — ranging from gob material to high walls and underground mines — are recorded in the Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System — a federal computer system used to store, manage and report on the Office of Surface Mining’s inventory of abandoned mine problems. It includes problems in need of reclamation, and those that have been reclaimed.
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The federal Abandoned Mine Land program is funded by a surface mine fee of 35 cents per ton and 15 cents per ton for underground mined coal. The fees are paid to the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining, which allocates the funds to individual states.
The program has done much good, but there’s still room for improvement. Coal miners today essentially are “paying for the deeds of the past,” said Mike Carey, president of Ohio Coal Association. He says a lesser tax on reclamation would make the coal industry more marketable.
On the positive side, Carey said technology lets current mining companies remine existing abandoned mines. Miners extract the coal left behind by previous miners, while simultaneously reclaiming the land.
Charlie Call, one of the first advocates for reclamation and the first chief of the Ohio Division of Minerals, said despite the industry’s opposition to reclamation in the early 1970s, the idea had gained support by the end of the decade, and today is standard practice.
“Their (coal) leadership is totally dedicated to reclamation,” Call said.
The 90-year-old man from Stow insists that he still has friends in the coal industry — people who adjusted to the demands of reclamation — and practice it as everyday stewardship and as part of modern law.
Reclaiming mine land improves public health and safety, the environment and use of the land for agriculture.
Blake Arthur, administrator for ODNR’s public health and safety abandoned mine program, said livestock grazing is “a pretty common use” for reclaimed mine ground, and can be beneficial as long as farmers give the vegetation time to establish, and avoid overuse.
“We try to coordinate with landowners regarding their post land use,” he said.
Wanda Stratton, who was among the first members of the Ohio Reclamation Commission, said when she and her husband farmed in Belmont County, some of his best corn came from land that had been reclaimed.
As a farmer, Stratton said she understood why the coal industry at first balked at new regulations. But over the years, perception has improved and so have the thousands of acres that have been reclaimed.
“I think now people are used to the law and understand the need for a law, and I think land owners are appreciative of it,” she said.
The soil and water over reclaimed mines can remain acidic for some time, and that can lessen its value as pasture grass or for crops.
But the biggest issue is usually providing enough nutrition, according to Bill Shulaw, an Ohio State University Extension veterinarian for cattle and sheep.
“It’s usually not a toxicity issue as much as are you able to supply the cow’s needs,” he said. “A lot of it is just what’s the plant community already there and what’s the land owner’s plan for managing it.”
No one knows for sure how far reclamation in Ohio will go, but past success stories and future goals keep the effort alive.
State officials estimate Ohio still has about $300 million in unfunded reclamation work and will receive about $180 million through the federal abandoned mine program’s scheduled end date in 2021. The program has been renewed in the past, but officials are unsure whether it will again be extended.
“We are doing a lot of reclamation projects and I believe we are making a big impact,” said ODNR’s Arthur. “When you tour these areas, you can see a lot of reclamation.”
Jonard has worked with the federal abandoned mine land program 28 years — nearly as long as it has existed. He’s focused on making a difference one site at a time.
“It isn’t about what it is now. Think about what it’s going to be like in 200 to 300 years from now,” he said. “If we leave it alone now, it’s going to look like this for eternity.”