Mine Land Reforestation: Technologies for use by the mining industry for restoring mined lands to forest have been developed through Powell River Project research conducted by Jim Burger (Forestry) over the past 29 years. Recent years have seen great progress in adoption of these technologies by the industry, support for improved reforestation by mining agencies, and engagement in reforestation research by other universities. All new surface mining permits with forested post-mining land uses approved by Virginia in 2007 and 2008 propose to use improved reforestation methods that will restore native hardwood forests on the reclaimed mine sites.
Stream Restoration / Mine Hydrology: Over the past year, Appalachian coal mining has been in the public eye, due to the impacts of large-scale mining in Appalachian terrain. Public concerns are focused on the cumulative hydrologic impacts of coal mining, as symbolized by the term “filling of streams.” US EPA has, which historically has not been heavily involved with coal mine regulation, has inserted itself into the controversy by challenging mining permits that entail large amounts of stream filling. Powell River Project has initiated new research in this area which will address stream restoration methods being used on coal mined sites and hydrologic processes on reclaimed coal mine sites. Research in this area is directly related to two other Powell River Project research emphases: mine reforestation, as the hydrologic restoration component of the work will address the effects of forest land cover on surface hydrology; and total dissolved solids, as any hydrologic restoration strategy to be used by the coal mines must, as a practical necessity in the current regulatory environment, address factors that contribute to elevated TDS concentrations in streams. Currently, research personnel are seeking to engage additional partners in this important research effort.
Total Dissolved Solids in 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. In 2007-08, Powell River Project developed an innovative and proactive research effort to determine how TDS in streams affects aquatic biota; the research is led by Stephen Schoenholtz of Virginia Water Resources Research Center (VWRRC), and 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 also an important partner in this research, and is providing access to field sites. Related research, led by Lee Daniels (Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences – see below) and supported directly by PRP, is addressing 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.
Soil Weathering Processes in Mine Spoils: This research is being conducted under the leadership of Lee Daniels, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences for the purpose of determining how environmental processes affect the morphological, physical, chemical and microbiological properties of soils forming from mine overburden materials on reclaimed sites, and how those mine spoils materials release total dissolved solids to ground and surface waters through the weathering process.
Bioenergy: 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 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 will determine the potential of reclaimed mine areas to support fast-growing woody crops; and to develop reclamation and management strategies that will maximize those potentials. Early research results demonstrate that hybrid poplar far outyields commonly used reclamation species -- 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. Thus, with 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.
Wildlife: Utilization of Reclaimed Mined Lands: Dr. Dean Stauffer and his graduate student, Ms. Amy Carrozzino, completed this 3-year project. Ms. Carrozzino is currently completing her M.S. thesis, which is based on this work. The research evaluated bird and salamander utilization of reclaimed mine sites, as influenced ecological succession of terrestrial vegetation.
Powell River Project Research and Education Center: Education programs for K-12 students at the Center use examples from mining and reclamation to foster student comprehension of earth and biological sciences as required by Virginia Standards of Learning, have served at least 30,000 student and teacher visits to the Center and his programs have become integral to natural resource education in area schools. A number of individuals whose first exposure to coal mining was at Powell River Project as students are now employed by coal-mining firms and government agencies.
Coal-to-Electricity: Working with Eastern Coal Council, Powell River Project has been instrumental to initiation and delivery of "Coal to Electricity" Teacher Education program for K-12 teachers from throughout Virginia. This program was initiated in 1996. Participating teachers learn how to integrate energy concepts with instruction that addresses Virginia Standards of Learning, within a context of current societal issues concerning energy and the environment. Participants visit active and reclaimed surface coal mines, underground coal mines, electric power plants, a coal gasification facility, and learn first-hand about the role of coal in today’s energy economy.
Major Accomplishments Over the Longer Term
Powell River Project partnered with state and federal agencies to
support the first comprehensive groundwater characterization survey of the Virginia
coalfield, and to initiate geologic mapping of the Virginia coalfields and its
coal resources back in the early 1980s.
Also in the ‘80s, Lee Daniels (Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences) research paved the way for widespread use of topsoil substitutes by the Appalachian coal industry. Dr. Daniels also developed guidelines for determining when coal refuse can be revegetated with reduced topsoil thicknesses and by direct seeding, guidelines that have saved the Virginia coal industry millions of dollars and remain in use today. Dr. Daniels’ more recent and current work with coal combustion products is developing information that is critical to environmentally sound management of coal ash and similar materials in mining environments, and has been influential in the development of state agency policy regarding these practices.
Jim Burger’s (Forestry) research has had a profound impact on mine reforestation as reclamation methods based on his research - methods that improve seedling survival and growth --are now employed by mining firms throughout Appalachia, with the approval and encouragement of regulatory authorities – and, because these methods increase the probability of success – reforestation after mining is far more common today than even 10 years ago.
Powell River Project research, including an survey of acid drainage impacted streams by biologist Don Cherry (Biology), played a key role in supporting two environmental improvement initiatives undertaken by Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy: With Powell River Project research support (Carl Zipper, Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences), the agency was a leader among states in developing incentives for reclamation of abandoned mines by active coal-mining operations through remining, and the agency’s cooperation enabled the Army Corps of Engineers’ remediation of a major AMD seep in Lee County. Between these two initiatives and remining operations by Red River Coal, the two worst AMD-impacted streams in southwestern Virginia, as documented by Dr. Cherry, have been fixed.
With Powell River Project support, Virginia Tech Mining and
Minerals Engineer Eric Westman (currently a faculty member, but working undr
Chris Haycocks at that time) conducted the first comprehensive assessment of
Virginia’s coal reserves since the 1950s.
With Powell River Project support, soil scientist Ray Reneau , (Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences) has documented successful operation of several technologies for on-site dispersal of septic wastes on mine soils, and an in-process Powell River Project publication – produced in cooperation by Virginia Department of Health – recommends septic wastewater treatment procedures for use by parties seeking to develop reclaimed mine sites where public sewers are not accessible.