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Pathfinders receives grant to reclaim four abandoned mines

IMAGE COURTESY OF ANNA BRUEN

Surface strip-mining was common in southeast and south central Iowa before 1977, when mining operations looked like the image shown above.
IMAGE COURTESY OF ANNA BRUEN Surface strip-mining was common in southeast and south central Iowa before 1977, when mining operations looked like the image shown above.
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Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development, Inc. has received four $100,000 Watershed Cooperative Agreement grants from the Office of Surface Mining.

The grants will be used to help fund reclamation of the Behrle North and South Abandoned Mine Land (AML) sites in Wapello County, the Northup North AML site in Davis County, and the Blom AML site in Mahaska County. Work on all four sites has already begun.

These projects will reclaim approximately 97 acres and improve water flowing to tributaries of the Muchakinock Creek in Mahaska County, Salt Creek in Davis County, and the Des Moines River in Wapello County. The construction of the projects are managed by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. Other partners include the Davis, Wapello, and Mahaska Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

“These areas are often an environmental calamity. So, each one we can help clean up really does make a difference,” said Pathfinders Executive Director Anna Bruen. “And it takes a team to get the job done. The landowners, local soil and water conservation districts, the contractors, and state and federal agencies involved are all critical to the process and do an excellent job of working together to get the tasks accomplished as efficiently and effectively as possible.”

How are mines reclaimed?

The Iowa Department of Agriculture Mines and Minerals Bureau staff work with landowners and engineers to create a design appropriate to the site and landowner’s future land use priorities. The sites vary from being completely barren to growing a lot of poor quality shrubs and trees.

The first step is clearing the site of trees and vegetation, as well as draining any ponds. Before the ponds are drained, the acidic water is neutralized by mixing lime into it.

After clearing and draining, bulldozers and heavy machinery are used to move tons of soil. The soil that is on site stays on site and no soil is brought in from off-site. The land is graded utilizing the material present.

The final grading blends the site into the surrounding landscape. Next, construction crews neutralize the highly acidic soils by mixing in lime to a depth of about 12 inches.

“That’s enough to keep the soil from burning vegetation immediately and giving new growth a chance,” Bruen said.

Mulch is applied to the site and then seed.

Big and small acreages

Pathfinders has partnered on reclaiming 50 abandoned mines thus far, ranging in size from 5 acres to 100 acres. Bruen said about a year goes into preparing a plan for each site.

The state team monitors the site for five years after the reclamation project has finished to ensure no problems arise. The landowners are responsible for ongoing management and maintenance and work with their local Soil and Water Conservation Districts to identify practices that will protect and enhance the sites.

History of mine reclamation

Surface coal mines that ceased operations before 1977 were not required to be “reclaimed” by the operator once the mining stopped. This means areas which were strip/surface mined for coal were often left with large barren piles of the overburden (the rock and soil that was covering the coal).

These “spoil piles” and unreclaimed mine lands present several environmental and aesthetic problems. These include leaving remnant coal exposed, leading to acid mine drainage that lowers the pH in receiving waterbodies. This negatively affects aquatic life and reduces biodiversity.

Acidic soil on site does not support the growth of vegetation, so landscapes look barren and the soil continues to runoff without vegetation to hold it in place. The dangerously high piles and “highwalls” (the unexcavated face of exposed overburden) can be hazardous to people and animals traversing the site. Iowa has reclaimed approximately 100 sites. Approximately 200 sites affecting 12-13,000 acres remain to be reclaimed.

Surface mining act

Bruen explained that the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act created two programs: one for regulating active coal mines and one for reclaiming abandoned mine lands. It also created the Office of Surface Mining, an agency within the Department of the Interior, that oversees regulations and reclamation efforts, and ensures consistency amongst state programs.

The abandoned mine land program is financed by a small tax on active coal mining, 80 percent of which is distributed to state programs that actively work to reclaim and regulate mining activities. Iowa is a minimum allocation state, meaning, since the state does not have any active coal mines, it receives a base amount as outlined in the legislation to mitigate hazards from previous mining operations.

Pathfinders is a nonprofit organization that assists local communities with initiatives related to natural resource conservation, economic development, and recreation. Pathfinders has been serving southeast Iowa since 1978.