Overview and Summary

The Powell River Project is a cooperative program of Virginia Tech, other educational institutions and environmental organizations, and natural resource industries serving the southwest Virginia coalfield region. The Powell River Project conducts research and education programs to enhance environmental restoration and water-resource protection in coal mining areas. Powell River Project also conducts outreach educational programs that communicate research results to the public, to industry, and to agencies; and contributes to undergraduate and graduate education at Virginia Tech.

Powell River Project research helps the coal industry via improved and more cost effective environmental compliance; helps mine regulatory agencies by informing regulatory policies; and helps Virginia coalfield communities by contributing to science-based environmental management of mining-affected areas. These benefits are achieved through peer-reviewed scientific research and through Powell River Project's outreach and education programming.

Powell River Project was founded in 1980 and is the longest-running program of its kind in the nation. Powell River Project has had a major influence on mine reclamation and mined-land reclamation and post-mining management practices throughout the Appalachian coalfields. Areas of unique expertise include (but are not limited to):

Mine Soil Construction: Mine soils are the foundation for the post-mining ecosystems. Appropriate soil reconstruction is essential to biological productivity and land-use potentials of the post-mining landscapes, and to water resource protection.

Mined Land Reforestation: Powell River Project research has changed mine reclamation practices throughout Appalachia, as native Appalachian trees are now planted widely using methods that enable them to survive and grow.

Management of Coal-Related Residual Products: Including coal-mine processing wastes and coal-combustion residues.

Water Resource Management and Protection: Mineral-origin salts released from mining areas are an aquatic resource influence throughout the Appalachian coalfields, and Powell River Project research is developing the basic scientific understanding that is essential to their management. Powell River Project researchers also have expertise that concerns acid mine drainage mitigation, mining- related selenium, and stream reconstruction on mined areas.

The Powell River Project Research and Education Center is located on 1100 acres in Wise County, Virginia, and is among the premier facilities for mining-related research and education programs in the world.

Due to changes in our nation's energy infrastructure, coal surface mining activity and associated land disturbances are declining in the Appalachian coalfields, but significant environmental restoration challenges remain. Scientific expertise at Virginia Tech, developed through Powell River Project, is essential to meeting those challenges and maximizing long-term post mining land use potentials. Powell River Project researchers are working to improve scientific understanding of mined-land environments; are collaborating with reclamation scientists from other universities; and are working with industry and agencies to develop and apply improved mine reclamation and environmental management methods in southwestern Virginia and throughout the Appalachian mining region.

Reclamation Research

Powell River Project research produces peer-reviewed scientific publications that concern mining, reclamation, and the environment. Since the mid-1990s, Powell River Project research has produced >100 peer-reviewed publications; as >40 Virginia Tech graduate students have completed M.S. theses and Ph.D. dissertations that concern mine reclamation science.

Areas of scientific activity by Powell River Project researchers include the following:

Mine soil construction and development.

Mined land reforestation.

Development of ecosystem processes on reforested mines.

Use of organic amendments to improve mine reclamation outcomes.

Management of coal combustion products in mined land environments.

Management and revegetation of coal refuse.

Mitigation and treatment of acid mine drainage discharges.

Mine spoil assessment and management for reducing total dissolved solids in mine-water outflows.

Aquatic life in mining-influenced streams with elevated total dissolved solids and selenium.

Stream reconstruction practices for restoration of ecosystem functions.

Assessment and management of vegetation communities that have been colonized by invasive plant species.

Powell River Project researchers conduct field studies at the Project's Research and Education Center and at other mine sites throughout the region. The research is aided by the unique mined land resources located at the Project's Research and Education Center. For example, an experimental area called the Controlled Overburden Placement experiment enables long-term study of mine-soil development, and is believed to be the oldest replicated and continuously maintained and monitored mine-reclamation experiment in the world. Similar mine reforestation plots established since the early 1980s enable study of forest ecosystem development on mine sites of various ages and over extended periods.

Accomplishments of Virginia Tech faculty working with Powell Rover Project have been widely recognized. As an example, the American Society of Mining and Reclamation (http://www.asmr.us/), a national organization of mine reclamation professionals, has recognized Powell River Project researchers for their 'outstanding contributions in the areas of mining, teaching, research, and/or regulatory or environmental consulting as it relates to land reclamation'.

Research Implementation

Topsoil substitutes are widely used by the mining industry as a means of complying with reclamation requirements of state and federal law. Powell River Project research findings were essential to the establishment and validation of these practices.

The Forestry Reclamation Approach, or FRA, is a reclamation method that that re-establishes productive native forest trees on Appalachian mines. Powell River Project research was essential to development of the FRA. The FRA is being used widely by the mining industry to re-establish forest trees on mine sites throughout central Appalachia today.

Powell River Project research has developed methods for converting mine sites reclaimed originally with non-forest vegetation into developing forest ecosystems with native Appalachian hardwood trees. With involvement by other regional scientists, these methods are being applied by industry, agencies, and non-profit organizations throughout the region.

Powell River Project research on coal refuse reclamation and revegetation established clear criteria and procedures whereby topsoil covers could be reduced while still ensuring long term revegetation success and local surface water quality is enhanced. The protocols have been applied at numerous coal refuse disposal facilities, reducing disturbances of additional areas to obtain topsoil cover materials.

Powell River Project findings on coal combustion residues (CCR) management prescribed optimal loading rates for fly ash used as a mine-soil amendment for mined lands and as a bulk-blended alkaline amendment for acidic coal refuse. The latter research was recognized by the National Research Council in their 2006 policy analysis report, Managing Coal Combustion Residues in Mines.

Powell River Project researchers and industry worked together to establish the first vertical-flow wetland treatment system for acid mine drainage on a coal mine site. Powell River Project researchers also developed methods for designing and sizing such systems. Today, vertical-flow wetlands are used to mitigate acid mine drainage discharges throughout Appalachia and beyond. With researchers' assistance, a large wetland of this type was established to mitigate what was formerly Virginia's largest untreated acid mine drainage discharge in Lee County.

Powell River Project researchers aided development of policy incentives for reclamation of abandoned mine areas by active mining operations. When incentivized by appropriate policies and when these sites contain minable coals, abandoned mines can be reclaimed by industry at no cost to government programs and taxpayers.

Powell River Project researchers developed methods for assessing mine rocks for their potential to release total dissolved solids (TDS) in water discharges. With researchers' advice, these methods are being used by the mining industry in efforts to reduce TDS in mine water discharges. Powell River Project research is developing fundamental scientific understanding of aquatic ecosystem structures and processes in mining-influenced streams with elevated TDS.

Powell River Project researchers have studied restoration of ecosystem processes in streams reconstructed on mined areas. Study findings are now being applied by industry.

Education and Outreach

Powell River Project maintains a Research and Education Center in Wise County, Virginia, where mine reclamation practices developed through research are demonstrated for industry, agencies, and the public.

Powell River Project publishes Reclamation Guidelines publications that describe research-based reclamation practices for industry and agencies. Powell River Project researchers have also been major contributors to Forest Reclamation Advisory publications by the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative.

Powell River Project personnel conduct education programs for K-12 students at the Research and Education Center. These programs use examples from mining and reclamation to foster student comprehension of earth and biological sciences as required by the Virginia Standards of Learning.

Working with the Eastern Coal Council, Powell River contributes to the Coal to Electricity Teacher Education program for K-12 teachers. Participants gain improved ability to integrate energy concepts with instruction that addresses current societal issues concerning energy and the environment.

Working with the Virginia Chapter of the Society for American Foresters and Virginia Cooperative Extension, Powell River Project contributes to the Trees to Products Teacher Education program for K-12 teachers. Participating teachers learn about forest tree production and management concepts, and gain improved ability to integrate those concepts with instruction that concerns current societal issues.

Approximately 1000 people visit Powell River Project Research and Education Center annually. Visitors include K-12 students, college students from Virginia Tech and other schools, mining industry and agency personnel, other adult learners, and the public. More than 50,000 visits to the Research and Education Center have been recorded since its establishment in 1980.

In 2015, the Powell River Project was recognized by the National Mining Hall of Fame. The Hall awarded the Prazen Living Legends of Mining Award to Powell River Project in recognition of outreach and education programming at the Research and Education Center.

Research and Outreach Publications

Powell River Project research has enabled 67 Virginia Tech students to obtain graduate degrees, with a focus on mine reclamation research.

Powell River Project researchers have also published more than 100 articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, More than 90 articles in peer-reviewed conference proceedings, and at least 10 chapters describing mine reclamation and mine-soil management practices in published books.

Powell River Project researchers have also authored and co-authored 37 Virginia Cooperative Extension and other outreach publications that communicate research findings to industry and agencies.

The works listed above include those based on research supported directly by Powell River Project funding, those enabled by grant funding obtained as a result of Project-sponsored research, and those based on research that utilized lands and facilities at Powell River Project Research and Education Center. The above data are as of December, 2015.