RECLAIMING MORE THAN THE LAND

By Emily McCue
Coal Creek Watershed Foundation / Office of Surface Mining
Summer Watershed Intern

Link to article in The Courier News

Mining Reclamation Lessons

Other reclaimed surface mines

Hidden deep within the belly of the Earth lays a jewel, darkened by epochs of time. The apex of its’ journey is achieved when, after ionizing from one form to another, the shapeless blob of organic matter is compressed into a luminescent black diamond….coal.
On June 14, 2001, I bore witness to this feat of nature. I, along with Intern Supervisor Carol Moore, traveled from Knoxville, Tennessee to Corbin, Kentucky to tour active surface mining and reclamation operations in Tennessee and Kentucky. During the hour and a half drive, I had time to think what I would see. As a "Coal Miner’s Daughter" from Harlan, Kentucky, I thought I had a firm grasp on what mining and reclamation projects entailed. Furthermore, I felt like I had an even stronger grasp on what mining towns were like, after all I lived in one for twenty-one years. As a junior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, pursuing an Environmental Engineering Major and Environmental Science Minor, I was prepared with three years worth of technical questions regarding mining hazards and reclamation inadequacies to fire out to the unlucky person who happened to be our tour guide. In essence, like many Americans nowadays, I had a tinge of skepticism concerning the entire mining process going into the tour. However, all that was about to change.
Carol and I arrived in Corbin early in the morning just in time to see the fog lifting from the valley and giving way to a spectacular sunrise. After driving a few more miles we reached the main office of TECO Coal. At the office, we watched a short video on safety precautions and rules that we were to follow on mine property and then met our guide, Dave Blankenship, Director of Safety and Environmental Affairs, and his assistant, Teresa McHargue. After a round of introductions, we loaded into a car and were off!
Before the seatbelts had clicked, I was already asking questions. "How big is the mine we are going to see? What type of vegetation is the site being reclaimed with? How does TECO deal with toxic runoff?" Dave shot back answers without hesitation. "The mine is thousands of acres. We reclaim in different ways, according to what the landowner wants to do with the land. We are reclaiming some sites now with native hardwoods and pines. We encapsulate potentially toxic material in the spoil, away from air and water, and deal with runoff in a series of settling ponds." I sat back, content with Dave’s answers, and decided that I would ask more questions when we got to the mine site. We drove on for several miles. While Dave and Carol talked in the front seats, I stared out the window at fantastic pastoral scenes dotted with ponds that eventually gave way to steep mountains. This, I thought, is what the land is supposed to look like, untouched and pristine. I continued to stare out the window, taking in the scenery until I heard Dave say, "We finished mining this site about two years ago." I snapped back to attention, realizing that this "fantastic pastoral scene" was actually a reclaimed surface mine!
After seeing the first reclaimed site, my skepticism began to fade. You see, actual experience was forcing the vivid textbook images of land devoid of life from my mind. I began to realize that three years of academia definitely had its place in my learning experience, but one day of seeing things for myself was worth far more. We continued our drive, following a road that wound tightly between mountains and valleys until we reached a plateau. Dave stopped the car and I looked around. To my left was a man on a bulldozer pushing mounds of earth into gently sloping hills. Dave explained that this was the first stage of reclamation. After coal is mined, the overburden that has been removed is dozed back to approximate original contour. Once again, I realized that the dangerous exposed highwalls that I had learned about were really a thing of the past. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, administered by State agencies and OSM, assured that reclamation techniques addressed this problem.



Pristine pastoral scene or reclaimed
surface mine?  (Both)

First stage of highwall
elimination process

Whitley County High School
built on reclaimed
surface mine land

Later in the day, Dave decided to take a detour on our way to the next reclamation site to show us the campus of Whitley County High School. I wondered, with a slight bit of irritation, why we were going to see a high school, when we had driven over one hundred miles to see mining reclamation. As we approached the school, I looked around with amazement. The campus was beautiful! There were state of the art buildings, level playing and practice fields, and even an outdoor amphitheater. I remember thinking that I wished some of the people I knew in college could see this school. It would have certainly dispelled any of their Appalachian stereotypes of one-room schoolhouses.
Dave told us TECO Coal had done the grade work for the amphitheater, and the track, football, baseball, and softball fields. Additionally, they had also completed some of the construction for new additions and supplied some of the drainage around the school. It was then that I realized that reclamation isn’t limited to the land. TECO Coal had helped reclaim this school. In a way, they were giving back to the very children whose parents and grandparents had worked so hard for so many years in the mining industry. Standing on the Whitley County High School Track, I realized that TECO and similar coal companies all over the United States, through their efforts, are investing in the future. They are giving back, with open arms, to the people and land that enabled their success.

Golf course, subdivision, and
industrial park on 2000-acre
reclaimed surface mine

Golf course wetland or surface
mine settling pond?  (Both)

The last site on our tour was a section of reclaimed land, approximately two-thousand acres, that was divided into property for a golf course, a subdivision, and an industrial park. Although I am not a golfer, I was truly in awe of this site. Raven Rock Public Golf Course was amazing! TECO Coal had designed a manicured golf course in the very heart of the reclaimed wildwoods of Kentucky. Native grasses and flowers literally cascaded down the hillsides stopping only a few inches short of the green. Constructed wetlands brimming with life, yet also serving as settling ponds, were scattered around the course, their placid waters only interrupted by the spray of a fountain. Never in my life have I seen such an inspiring juxtaposition of the handiwork of man and nature. One final time that day, I was given proof positive of a new and sustainable generation of coal mining and reclamation processes.

 

We completed the tour and decided to head back to the TECO office in Corbin. On our way we passed a sign for Harlan and Dave asked how long it had been since I had been home. I told him that it had been months and he said, "Well, we’ll go back to Corbin that way then." On the drive to Harlan and then to Corbin, I had time to think about what I had seen, what I had been taught in school, and what I had lived through growing up in a mining town. I remembered writing my application for the OSM Summer Internship and describing fantastic mountain views flattened by mountain top removal processes. I remembered writing about rivers so clouded with silt that fish lay suffocating on the banks. Ironically enough, I had not seen any of those things on the tour. Instead, I witnessed the process by which the fossil fuel that courses through the subterranean veins of mountains is removed. Those mountains and the views that they afford had been put back and restored. The memory of clouded streams that had been forged into my mind was now replaced with the image of a living, breathing, biotic community that was now strangely enough, called a settling pond at Raven Rock Golf Course.

Native grasses and flowers
blending into the 
golf course green

As we got closer to Harlan, we passed my church, my Uncle’s house, the family mines and many other places I call "home". I thought with amazement, how I had called myself a "Coal Miner’s Daughter" for so many years but at the same time never understood and in fact was ignorant of its significance. You see, as author Ian Torrens once said, and as I understand now, "…individual members of the public have little direct contact with coal and, consequently do not fully perceive its benefits…furthermore, it is hard to communicate to the public that this rather benign fuel is responsible for almost 60 percent of the electricity available in the United States." This field trip provided me with a unique opportunity to see for myself, without the bias of textbooks and history, the coal industry for what it really is, an integral part of energy production, an unwavering hand in local existence, and a responsible steward of the land.

Massive highwall in background,
highway or surface mine?
(U.S. Highway 23) 

As we came into Harlan, I asked Dave if he would drive past my house. As I passed my driveway, I realized that not only had I gained a wealth of information that day, but also, a girl had come home to her roots. I can say with my head held high, that with companies like TECO, who have become the forerunners of environmental integrity, I am so proud to have the privilege of being a "Coal Miner’s Daughter."

Mining Reclamation Lessons

Other reclaimed surface mines

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