Listen to CEC’s Jeff Shepherd and Katie Astroth as they explain the process of reclaiming abandoned mine lands and why it matters.
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Jeff: Welcome. I am Jeff Shepherd, and I’ll be your host as we discuss cleanup of abandoned mine lands. I’m a principal in CEC’s Oklahoma City office, and I have been a civil engineering consultant for more than 40 years, and I have a wide variety of experience helping clients resolve their engineering issues related to solid waste, landfill surface mines, and abandoned mines. Today I’m joined by Katie Astroth. Miss Astroth, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell us about your experience?
Katie: Thanks, Jeff. As Jeff said, I’m Katie Astroth. I’m the Ecological Sciences Group Lead in CEC’s St. Louis, Missouri office. I am an ecologist and a certified Professional Wetland Scientist and have over 13 years of experience working in the environmental field. Similar to Jeff, I work on a wide range of projects from electric transmission line rebuilds to solid waste landfill expansions to mining, which includes abandoned mine land reclamation like we’re going to talk about today.
Jeff: Awesome. Let’s get down to it. I’m going to give a brief history on the coal mining industry in Arkansas where CEC is currently working on five abandoned mine land reclamation projects. Coalfields in Arkansas are located in the Arkansas River Valley between the western border of the state and Russellville, Arkansas, which is Pope County, an area only about 33 miles wide and 60 miles long. Until about 1880, most coal mined in Arkansas was used near its original location often to fuel the fires of blacksmiths.
Between 1880 and 1920, coal is Arkansas’s first mineral fuel output, used especially for locomotives and steam-powered machines, as well as for heating homes and businesses. After 1920, oil and oil byproducts pushed aside the popularity of coal as fuel and mining of coal decreased. Much of the coal mined in Franklin County and Sebastian County around the year 2000 was used in the manufacture of charcoal briquettes for outdoor cooking. The thickness of coal beds in Arkansas rarely exceeds nine feet. The fields are often small because the coal beds are lenticular and may have been folded, faulted, or eroded during or after deposition.
Arkansas River Valley’s coal varies from low-volatile, bituminous coal in the western portion of the area to semianthracite in the Eastern portion. In 1907, coal mines in Arkansas reached a peak of 2.6 million tons. Over 106 million tons of coal were produced from 1880 to 2006. A principal of coal mining in Arkansas has been located in Sebastian County, which accounts for 55 percent of total production between 1880 and 1976. Johnson County – 17 percent; Franklin County – 14 percent; Logan County – 10%; Pope County – three percent; and Scott County – one percent. Coal mining was prevalent in the Franklin County area from the late 1880s to 1950. The five projects that CEC is currently working on are located in Sebastian County with three and Franklin County with two. Katie, why don’t you give us a quick summary of how these abandoned mines are regulated?
Katie: Sure. So, the lead Federal Agency for these projects is the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. In short, it’s OSMRE. Then the main governing regulation that applies to these projects is the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which has the acronym of SMCRA or sometimes called smack-rah. This act was passed in 1977, and Title IV of SMCRA established the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program, which is funded by a reclamation fee assessed for each ton of coal produced. As originally enacted, SMCRA authorized collection of reclamation fees for 15 years following the date of its enactment in 1977.
Since then, legislation has extended the fee collection authority seven times and also lowered the fee rate. This fee collection was set to expire towards the end of 2021, but as part of the Infrastructure Investment in Jobs Act, it was actually again reauthorized to collect reclamation fees through the end of now 2034 at reduced rates. While I was looking up the specifics earlier on how much has been collected in fees by this program, it is in the area of about $11.6 billion, and the Office of Surface Mining has distributed approximately $6 billion in abandoned mine land grants to states and tribes from the fund. An additional about $1.5 billion was transferred to the United Mine Workers of America’s health and retirement funds, and about $1.8 billion has been used for Office of Surface Mining operating expenses and abandoned mine land emergencies. So, at least about $2.2 billion of the abandoned mine land fund that remains unappropriated.
The abandoned mine land grants are distributed among the eligible states and tribes based on a formula to calculate their share of the annual fees collected. This takes into consideration factors such as the amount of current and historical production by state and the amount of abandoned mine lands inventory.
Jeff: Thanks, Katie. You mentioned the infrastructure bill that was recently passed. How much money will that possibly add?
Katie: Based on what I was seeing, it’ll add about $11.3 billion to accelerate and expand abandoned mine land cleanups.
Jeff: As I understand in Oklahoma, the Department of Mines, which regulates surface coal mining and underground coal mining, has pushed all of the federal money that was set aside for abandoned mine reclamation to the local tribes, since almost 95 percent of the abandoned mines are located within Native American reservations or directly on tribal lands.
Jeff: So, let’s now discuss what happens when the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment assigns us an abandoned mine land site. The first step is to prepare a scope of work and cost estimate. What goes into that process?
Katie: Once we get the site information, we check out the Abandoned Mine Land Inventory System, which is part of the Office of Surface Mining website. This inventory system will tell us what the priority problems are for a site. Priority problems are categorized as priority one, two, and three, with priority one and two being the worst. From there, we will then complete a site visit [and] meet with the landowner. It’s very important to understand that this process is voluntary for the landowner and does not cost the landowner anything. During the site visit, we discuss the possible reclamation that can take place and what the landowner wants when the project is completed.
For example, we were recently assigned a project in Arkansas that is a large water body leftover from a cool operation. The priority keywords are P1 – dangerous high walls, P1 – dangerous water bodies, P1 – dangerous piles and embankments, and P3 – spoil area. The reclamation of this site must eliminate those issues. The landowner for this project wants the water body completely filled in to provide more land area for agriculture. By filling in the water body, we will be able to eliminate all the priority keywords.
Jeff: Right. So, we have completed our due diligence by reviewing the problem areas from the OSMRE website, performed the site inspection, and met with the landowner. We’ve taken all of this information and prepared a scope of work and a cost estimate, submitted that to the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment, and they have approved it. So, now we have an active project. What are the next steps?
Katie: The next step would be to obtain a topographic survey of the area and perform the necessary surveys for environmental permitting requirements, such as a wetland and stream delineation, and a threatened and endangered species habitat assessment. These initial surveys help us characterize the site, develop a conceptual reclamation plan, and also start the environmental review and documentation process for the project. Jeff, do you want to start with discussing the topographic survey, and what information is collected as part of this effort?
Jeff: The topographic survey is usually performed using a drone and completing a LiDAR survey. When we have projects with water bodies, we use a Hydra Drone to perform a bathymetric survey. The bathymetric survey is just a topographic survey of the area beneath the surface of the water. During the process of the topographic survey, we try to collect all utility data, whether there’s underground pipelines or electric lines. We try to collect any overhead electrical lines. We try to collect important information, such as roads, spoil piles, trees, things like that. We even have one project where we have an underground cave. And so, we had to, you know, collect the data for the access port into that possible underground cave.
Katie: Thanks, Jeff. So, from an environmental standpoint, our first step is to perform a wetland and stream delineation of the project area. This is because most of the time there is some sort of water body involved in the projects and sometimes these water bodies are strip mine pits within or through a stream channel and can also have wetland areas either along the fringe of these water bodies or within the strip pits themselves. Documenting these areas is important because although these are abandoned mine land sites that have been deemed hazardous in some way these wetland stream areas are often still regulated under Section 401 and 404 of the Clean Water Act. So, although we are trying to perform reclamation of a site, the project still has to abide by Clean Water Act permitting requirements.
We also perform a threatened and endangered species habitat assessment of each site in order to have an understanding of sensitive species that could have the potential be impacted by the proposed reclamation. Much of the time we are most concerned with potential impacts to protected bat species, such as the northern long-eared bat. The northern long-eared bat roosts in wooded areas under loose tree bark or within crevices of dead or dying trees in the summer months. And then in the winter, they hibernate in caves or sometimes in abandoned mines. If we identify potential rhus trees within the footprint of a project, then seasonal tree clearing restrictions will likely be needed, which means a tree clearing is required to implement the reclamation. Trees can only be cleared in the winter months when the bats are not present in or hibernating. We also have to be aware of and look for any potential portals such as abandoned mine shafts, which could also be potential bat habitat and would also need to be addressed through consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In a little bit, I can dive further into the environmental review of these projects and how the National Environmental Policy Act which has the acronym of NEPA or nee-pah comes into play. But first, Jeff, do you want to talk about how this initial survey information, with a topographic survey and the wetland stream delineation, is used to develop the conceptual reclamation plan, and what other engineering analyses have to be performed in order to finalize the plan?
Jeff: Yeah. Thanks, Katie. When we are developing our reclamation plan — our preliminary reclamation plan, we are looking at ways to remove the priority issues, and in most cases, these are ponds with very high walls inside the pond, and the landowner typically wants those to be removed or shortened such that they’re not so vertical. So, we have to look at the surrounding area for soil to place back into the pond and either create a much smaller pond or fill in the pond completely. And because these ponds can be part of a stream, as Katie mentioned, we have to look at the flow of water in and out. In one particular project, we have completed a hydrogeological hydrology study on the stream to determine the flows in and out of the pond area, and we’ve had to design an outlet structure at the downstream side of the pond to prevent so much water from moving through that it overwhelmed the adjacent state highway.
Other design issues include performing geotechnical engineering investigations where we determine the depth of good soil to use in backfilling the pond. We also will do other surface water design calculations to make sure that the ponds aren’t overwhelmed by surface water that could come in post-construction. One particular project that we had — our first one — was a pile of mine refuse material that had to be covered with three feet of clean soil so that the surface water will not come into contact with the mine waste. That required us to do a geotechnical investigation of a nearby field to determine if the soils in that field would be suitable for our use, and also, we performed a geotechnical investigation of the pile of mine refuse itself to determine the depth and to determine how much water was inside the mine refuse that would eventually be squeezed out by the weight of the three-foot of cover. Katie, I’ll turn it back over to you to discuss the NEPA compliance.
Katie: Thanks, Jeff. So, yeah, as I mentioned before, NEPA compliance documentation is also required for these projects. NEPA is a federal law that establishes a National Environmental Policy and provides framework for planning and decision-making by federal agencies. Specifically, NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate potential environmental impacts before making decisions and implementing federal actions. NEPA also establishes a need to include interagency coordination and public participation in the environmental review process. Because the Office of Surface Mining provides Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment with federal financial assistance through annual construction grants for abandoned mine land projects, NEPA documentation and evaluation of environmental impacts is required for these projects. All of our projects so far in Arkansas are what are called NEPA categorical exclusions. These are usually referred to as CECXs or cad-exes, and this means that these projects are a kind of action that has no significant individual or cumulative effect on the quality of the environment. So, this does not mean that categorical exclusions are exempt from NEPA review, but CECXs are a form of NEPA compliance that does not warrant the level of analysis contained in an environmental assessment or in an environmental impact statement.
The first step as part of the NEPA process, and after we have a conceptual reclamation plan for a site, is to consult with agencies and tribes to let them know about the proposed project and offer an opportunity to review and provide comments. These agencies for our Arkansas projects include various state agencies such as the Department of [Agriculture], the Department of Transportation, Division of Environmental Quality, Natural Resources Division, the Historic Preservation Program, and the Geological Survey. The federal agencies that we consult with include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and this is where our threatened and endangered species habitat assessment comes in and helps us with this consultation.
Jeff: Alright. Well, Katie, just a quick question: when you consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, what are the few of the endangered species that we might encounter on a particular project?
Katie: Sure. Like I said, most of the time were most concerned with bats. I think on the most recent project we did, some of the species that were listed, like I said before, northern long-eared bat, another one is the Ozark big-eared bat, and then there’s always several birds. They’re usually on the list. I think in this area we had to deal with the eastern black rail, piping plover, and the red knot. American burying beetle is also listed for the areas that we are working in, and several different flowering plants are also listed.
In the way we go through this consultation initially with Fish and Wildlife Service is we actually go on to their website and use their determination keys, and we initially put in our information, our project site, and that’s how we initiate consultation with them and then based on our responses they’ll come back and contact us themselves if they need additional information.
We also consult with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which they provide review of our wetland and stream delineation and provide comment on potential permitting requirements for the project, and we also consult with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And like I said before, we also reach out to various tribes. Two of the main ones that we do consult with for the projects we’ve had so far in Arkansas or the Quapaw Tribe of Oklahoma and also the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.
So, after the comment period is closed, we then evaluate any comments received and address any requests for additional information. Once the agency consultation concludes, we then complete the Office of Surface Mining’s abandoned mine land Categorical Exclusion Determination Form to verify the proposed project meets the necessary exemptions to proceed with a CECX. Assuming it does, we then finalize the CECX NEPA document documenting the proposed reclamation plan and the results of the agency consultations that have taken place, and this thing gets submitted to the Office of Surface Mining for final approval. Then concurrently with the NEPA process, we also work on obtaining any necessary permits that are required prior to initiating construction.
Jeff: Alright. Well, now that we’ve sort of finished the environmental part of the project, we have to start putting together construction plans and specifications, and that requires us to produce a set of drawings and a set of technical specifications for the construction. We package that up. We post a notice in the newspaper that this bid is available for review. We get, you know, five to eight contractors that indicate they want to bid on the project. We conduct a pre-bid meeting where we meet with the contractors and the Department of Environmental Quality staff on the site. We discuss the project. We go through the particular aspects of how the work is supposed to be completed. The contractors submit their bids. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is required to accept the lowest bid. We process the bid; we collect the contract documents. We put the contract together, and the contractor is officially notified to start the work. At that point, we have a pre-construction meeting, and the contractor starts construction shortly after that.
During construction, we will perform weekly inspections of the work. We will attend weekly construction meetings. We will record the minutes of those meetings and submit those to all the parties involved. As the work progresses and towards the end of the project, we will start to produce documents such as substantial completion. That’s where we go out and perform an inspection to determine if the contractor is close to finishing, and we call that substantial completion. From there, the project will move into final completion, and we will produce another document called the final completion document, and that will be signed off by the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. And then the project will be officially finished, and it will go into a 12-month maintenance period.
During the maintenance period, the contractor is typically required to manage or maintain the vegetation; that’s the biggest thing is the vegetation to make sure it’s growing. They may be required to add fertilizer or other vegetation to ensure that the vegetation is growing and at the end of the 12 months reaches a certain percentage of coverage. And then once that’s done, the project is officially completed, and it’s taken off the abandoned mine list. So, in a brief nutshell, that is our abandoned mine lands projects.
Katie: So, Jeff, I think let’s talk about kind of the importance of these projects, and, you know, why we’re doing these and why you know the states and the tribes, why does the Office of Surface Mining and Abandoned Mine Lands Program — why is it important to perform the reclamation of these sites? I think we talked about before that there are different priority problems. Some of these are dangerous high walls or dangerous piles, water bodies, and such, and some of these are dangerous water bodies because they have these straight up and down banks. So, I think one of these was in say a cow pasture, so, with these up and down banks, if different livestock or even, you know, a kid playing nearby or, you know, if you’re out fishing and an animal or a person would fall into these water bodies, they really can’t easily get out of them. So, that makes them dangerous water bodies.
We’ve had some issues with some of these ahead different kinds of spoil piles. Either they’re really steep or maybe they’re unstable. Jeff, I think we talked about that one that had the pH issue. I don’t know if you want to chime in a little bit about that one and how that could cause some problems for the environment.
Jeff: Yeah. Sure. The one project where it was the abandoned mine waste, the stormwater runoff from that waste had a very high pH, and a high pH water can, you know, have an impact on the local ecosystem that it runs into. For example, this one was running into a fairly large creek, which could impact people’s ability to fish or hunt or enjoy their outdoor environment. And just to circle back with the dangerous high walls, Katie, you’re correct, you know, livestock or people could accidentally slip into these ponds, and it would be very difficult for them to get out of the pond because of the steep walls that are associated with these abandoned mines. And a lot of times these walls are just solid rock that you really can’t, you know, you’re really not able to find a grip to get yourself out.
Katie: Right. So, it seemed like a lot of the ones that I’ve been involved in with those water bodies and, like what you talked about before, the reclamation of them, I mean basically it’s fixing them in some way, whether that includes, you know, proposing to fill in the whole water body itself to eliminate these hazards or kind of peeling the banks back to make them a more gradual slope. So, you know, livestock could access the water or people and such.
Jeff: Yeah, I think for the most part the landowners want some portion of the pond to stay intact so that they have the ability to have some water for their cattle grazing, but there are times when the landowner wants, the entire pond filled with soil so that they can increase the amount of area that they can produce agricultural products. Katie, do you have anything else to add?
Katie: No, I think you covered it pretty well, Jeff. I want to thank you for your time and doing this, doing this podcast with me, and inviting me along to do this talk with you.
Jeff: I appreciate you joining, Katie. Thank you very much.
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