JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Natural Resources Department has embarked on a nearly $1 million project to prevent toxins from running off a former Boone County coal mine.
The project, headed by Ashland’s C.L. Richardson Construction Co. and funded by the federal government, will turn a 27-acre mound of black, muddy coal waste at the Rocky Fork Lakes Conservation Area into a gently sloping grassy hill. It will also treat and neutralize two acidic ponds nearby.
The goal of the $913,000, 43-acre project tucked along the hills east of the conservation area’s entrance is to forever prevent coal mining residue from washing off the site and into surrounding ponds, lakes or tributaries of Rocky Fork Creek.
A creek tributary sits about a half-mile west of the contaminated site, said Stuart Miller, policy coordinator for the Missouri Conservation Department. Although coal residue is not harmful to people, it often kills plant and aquatic life, Miller said.
Previously, residue has contaminated the creek, which both the Natural Resources Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency list as an impaired body of water.
“I had concerns that the right amount of rain and storm events would lead to a rather disastrous overflow of toxic spill,” said Jim Loveless, the wildlife management biologist who oversees the conservation area. “Fortunately, that hasn’t happened.”
From 1963 to 1972, Peabody Coal Co. mined 1,150 acres of the conservation area’s 2,025 acres, according to the Conservation Department. The site being restored was the mine’s processing plant, where workers dumped and treated the coal before transporting it. Only that portion of the conservation area will be temporarily closed to visitors.
After closing the mine, Peabody Coal restored a portion of the area, said Len Meier, with the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
But since the mine closed five years before the U.S. passed its Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act — which essentially says companies must restore mining sites — the Rocky Fork mine was left with a mound of black memories from its past.
That coal waste residue — and the obligation to prevent it from contaminating area creeks — was transferred to the Conservation Department after the state bought the land from Peabody for $379,000 in 1979. Peabody, now Peabody Energy, is the world’s largest private-sector coal company.
“For the past 25 or 28 years, we’ve been working down the list doing the worst projects in term of human safety,” said Mike Phillips, the project’s designer with the Natural Resources Department.
The mine restoration program temporarily closed in 2003 because of a lack of money. The program resurfaced in February 2006.
The Rocky Fork mine, which sits about six miles north of Columbia, just east of U.S. 63, is the state’s first major project since the funds returned.
Recently, cloudless blue sky hung over the conservation area. Fishermen manned two small boats that drifted in the largest of the area’s 20-plus lakes. Bass, catfish and crappie inhabit the waters.
Down the area’s gravel road, past a 22-stand shooting range, a 48-acre lake and an iron gate, sits an assemblage of mud-caked earth-moving equipment, which arrived at the conservation area last month.
For the next seven months or so, the trucks and bulldozers will call the area home.
Crews will flatten the contaminated hill — also known as a gob pile — and cover the coal residue with two to three feet of subsoil taken from other locations.
Burying the coal waste, Phillips said, is environmentally safe and would prevent it from running off into nearby ponds, which the state will help restore by treating them with lime.
“The pond has kind of gone back and forth from being infected to, right now, there’s fish in it,” Miller said.
After grasses are planted, the now-barren hill will look more like the prairies it overlooks, Miller said.
Officials said they hope wildlife, including deer, quail and turkeys that have avoided the area, will return to the site.
But there are other reasons to reclaim the old mining operation.
Meier said abandoned mines often become more dangerous over time. Erosion increases run-off and creates deeper gullies and potential landslides.
“The reclamation work on public land will be very visible to people when it’s done,” Meier said. “And people will be able to see what can be accomplished using the abandoned mine funds.”
What’s transpiring at Rocky Fork is mirrored across the country. Meier said both the state and U.S. governments have been trying to tackle their abandoned mine problems for years. He said it would cost some $3 billion to reclaim all the country’s problem and hazardous coal mines.
Some of those are spread throughout Missouri. According to Missouri’s Abandoned Mine Land program under the Natural Resources Department, the state is home to 138 old coal mines that still need funding for restoration. The funds needed total more than $102 million. Boone County houses 15 of those mines, the most of any Missouri county, according to the program. Costs to reclaim the county’s mines nearly reaches $8 million.
“There’s millions of acres of old mines nationwide,” Meier said. “Only a small percentage of those actually cause problems to people. But even that small percentage exposes us to a lot of hazards and expenses to reclaim.”