(Part I of a two-part series.)
SALEM, Ohio — In a wooded area in the small community of Rogers, in eastern Columbiana County, Todd Gleydura points toward a 75-foot drop-off called a highwall. Its vertical edge leads to a small pond at the bottom, with steep embankments.
On a cool, frosty morning, he is careful not to get any closer. The fall alone could cause severe injury or death.
It’s a structure that Gleydura, an environmental specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, calls Hays Highwall II. It’s the name given to a coal mine used up until the mid-1900s. Now, it’s one of thousands of Ohio’s abandoned mines — hidden public health and safety hazards.
Although Gleydura knows the boundary and the danger that lies below, others may not. Just a few hundred yards from the structure is the Rogers Elementary School, and houses are even closer.
“We know that people frequent the area,” he said, pointing to an old boat floating in the middle of the pond.
Across from the highwall is the leftover coal and soil material the miners left behind, called spoil.
“That’s all the stuff that used to be over here that we’ll fill back,” Gleydura said.
In northern Muskingum County, ODNR Environmental Specialist Bill Jonard is trying to reclaim a different site with a different set of issues. Known historically as the Wills Creek Coal Co., the site is found along Wills Creek and was abandoned in 1964, leaving heaping piles of coal and ground wastes called “gob.”
On certain days, Jonard has seen gob self-ignite due to its porosity and the gasses that get trapped inside. It’s a hazard to property owners and anyone else who lights a fire too close.
The gob is considered a public health and safety issue, Jonard said, because of unregulated and unapproved ATV use, unauthorized hunting and trespassing.
And, it also poses some environmental issues. In addition to being flammable, the gob restricts part of the water flowing through Wills Creek, and a short distance from the gob, part of an open mine is emitting high concentrations of iron into the water, producing a noticeably red color.
“That’s what you call an environmental problem,” Jonard said, pointing to the long stream of red making its way into the creek.
Iron may be the biggest issue at this site, but other heavy metals are worse at different sites, with dilute sulfuric acid and high levels of aluminum and manganese getting into the water.
The acidic water has a low pH because of its contact with sulfur-bearing material and very few aquatic organisms live in these troubled waters. According to the ODNR’s current inventory, some 1,300 miles of Ohio streams are impacted by acid mine drainage.
* * *
These and 5,000-plus abandoned underground coal mines in Ohio are the result of a largely unregulated coal boom that began sweeping the state around 1800. Lured by new wealth and jobs, settlers headed for the hills and woodlots of eastern Ohio.
During the first half of the 19th century, Ohio’s coal miners — primarily English, Scottish and Welsh descent — cut and loaded coal entirely by hand and moved it to their homes and local markets in wagons, carts, flatboats and canal boats. (Timeline of Ohio’s coal industry. Link opens .pdf.)
The amount of coal mined in Ohio exceeded 1 million tons in the mid-1800s, and production grew rapidly into the early 1900s, all on the heels of new advancements like the steam engine, railroads, automobiles and new mining technology.
The industry continued strong growth and reached its production peak in 1970, when more than 55 million tons of coal were mined.
But at the same time, the ugly footprint of a largely unregulated industry was showing up throughout the state. By 1972, some 450,000 acres of land had been surface mined and 6,000 underground coal mines existed below 600,000 acres of land.
From an environmental perspective, 1,300 miles of streams were polluted by acid mine drainage, 500 miles of streams were affected by sediment deposition, domestic water supplies were polluted, landslides were common and nearly 119,000 acres of land needed major reclamation.
Today, an estimated $200 million of abandoned mine land projects are still unfunded, and even more are undocumented.
A series of state and federal laws in the 1970s would ultimately lead to the most significant reclamation policy of all time, but they did not come easy.
Charlie Call, now retired and living in Stow, worked tirelessly to convince coal companies and the state legislature of the need to reclaim mined land.
“The industry was the most powerful political entity in Ohio,” he said. “They controlled everything that happened at the Statehouse.”
Call and others who supported reclamation ultimately joined hands with environmentalists, a group of people he said were known for being “crazy, wild” and even “smelly” but also for getting things done.
A milestone was reached in 1972 when Ohio revised its strip-mine law, requiring miners to regrade mine spoil to approximate pre-mining contour, replace topsoil and re-establish vegetation.
At the time, officials considered it the most comprehensive strip mine law in the nation. In 1976, Call became the first chief of ODNR’s Division of Mineral Resources, charged with enforcing the law.
And one year later, the federal government passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 — which mirrored Ohio’s reclamation law and created an abandoned mine land program to address the highest priority public health, safety, and environmental problems of mining that occurred prior to Aug. 3, 1977.
An eight-member review commission, known today as the Ohio Reclamation Commission — listened to appeals cases concerning mining and reclamation.
Wanda Stratton, a 30-year veteran of the commission, said reclamation laws did a lot of good, but were not an easy sell.
“I can remember many coal operators telling me they were going to have to go out of business. A number of small operators did,” she said.
“On the other hand, the land is being better cared for and being put back into a really useful, productive use again.”
(Next week, what’s being done to reclaim abandoned mines in Ohio.)