Reports, Powell River Project

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  • Long-Term Mine Soil Weathering and TDS Release
    Orndorff, Zenah W.; Daniels, W. Lee; Beck, Mike; Eick, Matthew J.; Zipper, Carl E. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 contained a number of contentious provisions including return to original contour (AOC), long-term liability bonding periods, and return to “equal or better” post-mining land use conditions. However, one of the more interesting provisions was SMCRA’s allowance for use of pre-selected overburden materials as topsoil substitutes when (A) the native A+E horizon materials are less than 6 inches thick, and (B) the physical and chemical properties of the proposed substitute spoil materials are deemed suitable for such use. Since native topsoil layers throughout the Appalachian coalfields are usually less than six inches thick, and removing them from steep slopes is difficult and expensive, the vast majority of coal mined lands in the region have employed topsoil substitutes. One of the unintended secondary effects of this practice has been the intentional selection and placement of topsoil substitute materials derived from deeper unweathered strata that are higher in pH and extractable nutrients than near-surface weathered strata. As discussed later, many of these otherwise suitable topsoil substitutes are also generate significant ionic loads to runoff and leaching waters as they weather over time.
  • A Study to Determine the Preference of Nesting Box Entrance Hole Size of Sialia sialis (Eastern Bluebird): Year 2
    Burkart, Carol A.; Russo, Anthony; Aldridge, A.; Aldridge, N.; Collins, D.; Fitzgerald, N.; Franklin, J.; Fraley, B.; Greer, A.; Hall, L., IV; Johnson, T.; Kilgore, R.; Lawson, J. D.; Lindsey, M.; McKnight, G.; Skeens, M.; Slemp, S.; Townsend, R.; Woods, N. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    For a second breeding season, nesting box preference was tested between boxes with large entrance holes and boxes with the traditional entrance hole diameter. As in the previous season, birds (Eastern Bluebirds, chickadees and tree swallows) nesting along the trail at the Powell River Education Center, preferred the boxes with the traditional sized holes; however, there was limited activity in the large holed boxes with one pair of bluebirds successfully fledging four chicks. Bluebirds, tree swallow and chickadees were active in field 1, while only chickadees were active in field 2. Chickadees were the most successful during the 2011 season fledging sixteen chicks, while bluebirds and tree swallows fledged nine chicks each. Chickadees built two nests in field 2, but one nest was abandoned and the second was lost to predation, resulting in the loss of four eggs. By mid-June, the grass in the field 2 has grown tall, and nesting activity ceased. Student volunteers from the general biology classes at Mountain Empire Community College assisted in the replacement of weathered boxes and the monitoring of nesting activity. A student from Lee High School assisted in the placement of the pan traps fulfilling part of his service requirement for an AIMS Scholarship.
  • Restoring Ecological Function to Reforested Mined Lands: Connecting Soils with Forest Productivity and Ecosystem Service
    Strahm, Brian D.; Craig, Nina G. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    This project contributes to the legacy of reforestation research at the Powell River Project and provides benefit to the larger Appalachian Coal Region. Dr. Brian Strahm has recently (2009) joined the faculty of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation at Virginia Tech following the retirement of Dr. Jim Burger who has led the reforestation research program at the Powell River Project since 1980. Drs. Strahm and Burger have worked very successfully with Dr. Carl Zipper over the last two years to facilitate this transition in order to maintain the strong tradition of reforestation research in reclaimed mined lands centered at the Powell River Project. This level of cooperation is expected to continue into the future as reforestation research moves from an era focused on seedling establishment into one focusing on forest stand development, productivity, and the ability of reforested landscapes to provide valuable ecosystem services, all of which provide benefits to the landowners, mining companies and local communities. Specifically, this project has augmented the core focus of the Forestry Reclamation Approach (FRA) to “fast forward” vegetative succession and return high value hardwoods to the post-mining landscape by providing information to simultaneously “fastforward” the restoration of the ecological services, function and productivity of the pre-mining forested landscape. Thus, this project utilizes the long-term Controlled Overburden Placement Experiment (COPE) to evaluate the effects of topsoil substitutes and organic amendments on the carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) cycles that combine to regulate forest productivity, C sequestration and the buffering of nutrient losses to nearby aquatic ecosystems. Additionally, the project capitalizes on the unique opportunity to work closely with Dr. Lee Daniels to better understand the differences that reclamation through reforestation and herbaceous vegetative cover have on these important biogeochemical cycles. The culmination of this work will help guide reclamation and reforestation efforts on mined lands and directly address the growing social and regulatory pressures facing the coal mining industry regarding the return of ecosystems services and productivity to the post-mining landscape. We have made great strides in this effort to-date and will detail our progress, findings, and plans below.
  • Reclaimed Mined Land for Forests and Forestry
    Burger, James A.; Strahm, Brian D.; Evans, Daniel M.; Zipper, Carl E. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    This report lists products of research and education activities concerning reforestation of mined lands conducted during the 2010-2011 fiscal year.
  • Total Dissolved Solids in Appalachian Coalfield Streams: Current Research Approaches
    Zipper, Carl E.; Schoenholtz, Stephen H.; Soucek, David J.; Timpano, Anthony J.; Boehme, Elizabeth A. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    Issues concerning total dissolved solids (TDS) in streams affected by mining operations are important to the coal industry. In this article, we present background concerning TDS as a water quality concern, and we describe ongoing Virginia Tech research approaches to address this issue.
  • Forest Composition and Growth After 9 Years on a Virginia Mine Site
    Zipper, Carl E.; Burger, James A.; Evans, Daniel M.; Donovan, Pat (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    The eastern USA’s Appalachian region contains abundant coal resources and supports extensive deciduous forests. Appalachia’s forests provide ecosystem services, including carbon storage, watershed and water quality protection, and habitat for diverse flora and fauna; and they supply high-quality hardwood timber to the world economy. Since 2006, some mining firms have been using a reclamation method known as the “Forestry Reclamation Approach” or FRA, for the purpose of restoring native hardwood forests on reclaimed coal mine sites (Burger et al. 2005). In 2001-2002, a prototype version of the Forestry Reclamation Approach was applied by Rapoca Energy Co. at a mine site in Buchanan County, Virginia. Company personnel worked with the authors to apply Virginia Tech’s mine reforestation guidelines (Burger and Zipper 2002) while remining and reclaiming an older mine site. Reclamation grading operations were conducted with the intent of avoiding surface compaction. A tree-compatible groundcover seeding mix was applied, and trees of species native to Appalachian forests were planted. Due to limited spoil availability and prior mining effects, a wide variety of mine soil types and conditions were left on the surface. Most of the site was bounded by unmined forest, providing opportunity for “seeding in” by volunteer species. Here, we report results of a site assessment conducted in summer and fall 2010, after nine growing seasons. Specific goals are to assess species composition and growth of the young forest, and to evaluate how community composition and tree growth responded to soil and site conditions.
  • Tree Stock and Fertilizer Effects on Black Locust Biomass Production on Mined Lands
    Evans, Daniel M.; Zipper, Carl E.; Burger, James A. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
  • Selected Carbon Dynamics as Functional Indicators of Restoration Success: Progress From the First Two Years
    Krenz, Robert J.; Schoenholtz, Stephen H.; Zipper, Carl E. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
  • Wildlife Response to Surface Mine Reclamation in Southwest Virginia
    Latimer, Chris E.; Stauffer, Dean F. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
  • Levels of Dissolved Solids Associated with Aquatic Life Effects in Headwater Streams of Virginia Central Appalachian Coalfield Region
    Timpano, Anthony J.; Schoenholtz, Stephen H.; Zipper, Carl E.; Soucek, David J. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    Benthic macroinvertebrate communities in headwater streams influenced by Appalachian coal mining often differ from communities in minimally disturbed streams. Elevated levels of total dissolved solids (TDS) associated with mining have been suggested as stressors to these communities. In studies of such streams conducted to date, both non-TDS stressors and elevated TDS have been present as potential influences on biota. In the study reported here the association between dissolved salts and benthic macroinvertebrate community structure was examined using a familylevel multimetric index and genus-level taxa sensitivity distributions. Test sites were selected along a gradient of elevated TDS, with non-TDS factors of reference quality. Virginia Stream Condition Index (VASCI) scores were regressed against log-transformed measures of TDS, specific conductance, and sulfate (SO4 2-) using ordinary least squares and quantile regression techniques. Biological effects, as defined by VASCI scores <60 indicating stressed or severely stressed conditions, were observed with increasing probability from 0% at ≤ 190 mg/L TDS to 100% at ≥ 1,108 mg/L TDS, with 50% probability of effects observed at 422 mg/L TDS. Associations between water quality measures and biological condition were variable, with approximately 48% of the variance explained by TDS. Genus-level analysis using a field sensitivity distribution approach indicated 95% of reference genera were observed at sites with TDS ≤ 281 mg/L, and 80% of genera were observed at sites with TDS ≤ 411 mg/L. This is evidence that TDS, specific conductance, or SO4 2-can be used to establish dissolved solids levels for streams influenced by Appalachian coal mining above which aquatic life effects are increasingly probable.
  • Tree Species, Density, and Fertilizer Effects on Woody Biomass Production on Mined Lands: Year Three Report
    Evans, Daniel M.; Zipper, Carl E.; Burger, James A.; Fields-Johnson, Chris W. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2011)
    Under-utilized, previously mined lands may be used to produce woody biomass materials for energy production and C sequestration. Past research trials have shown that tree growth on mined lands can be highly productive if suitable reclamation practices are used. This study tests the productivity of woody biomass plantations on previously mined lands after ripping to reduce soil compaction, using four species treatments under two planting densities. This report summarizes the establishment procedure, growth of trees after three years, and the effects of a fertilizer treatment applied after year two. At year three, black locust continues to have the highest volume and biomass of any treatment and high density treatments have greater per-ha volume and biomass compared to low density treatments. For black locust, sycamore, and hybrid poplar, year three per-tree volume growth increments were greater than year two and fertilizer nominally increased growth in year three.
  • Economic Viability of Woody Bioenergy Crops as a Potential Mine Reclamation Procedure
    Leveroos, Maura; Sullivan, Jay; Evans, Daniel M. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    Planting woody biomass for energy production can be used as a mine reclamation procedure to satisfy the SMCRA and provide renewable energy for the United States. This study examines the productivity of woody biomass on previously mined lands using four species planted at two densities; one-half of the trees were fertilized in year two. This report summarizes the current and predicted volume of these species as well as the effect of planting density and fertilizer application. After four years, black locust has the highest volume of any treatment with the other species an order of magnitude behind. Black locust and sycamore trees have reached a point where it is clear that planting at lower density can increase per tree biomass. Future projections indicate planting at low density with fertilization will produce the greatest amount of biomass per tree.
  • Organic Matter Dynamics as Functional Indicators of Stream Condition in Constructed Streams on Virginia Coal Mine Sites
    Krenz, Robert J.; Schoenholtz, Stephen H. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    The Clean Water Act [section 404; stream mitigation rule] mandates that operations permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) must mitigate streams impacted by valley fill and other mining activities (Register April 10, 2008). Agencies regulating coal mining operations are placing increased emphasis on functional measures for stream assessment. Guidance memoranda issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and COE concerning mining permits state that the regulatory process should “ensure that compensatory mitigation adequately replaces lost stream functions” (2011) and that “permitting will not rely exclusively on an evaluation of structure in place of function” (2010). In this context, successful restoration of stream functions is of concern to industry, regulators, and restoration professionals. Additionally, in 2012 EPA released A Function‐Based Framework for Stream Assessments and Restoration Projects, a document aimed at those implementing stream restorations and assessments, and clearly states that it would benefit “from review, comments, and example experiences and applications” (Harman et al. 2012). The research presented in this report is addressing needs of industry and regulators by directly measuring specific ecosystem functions in stream mitigation efforts on coal mine sites in southwestern Virginia, and can contribute as an example experience and application. Organic matter (OM), primarily as leaf litter and detritus input, serves as habitat and an essential energy source for benthic macroinvertebrates within headwater and downstream ecosystems. Alteration of the sources, production rates, or processing rates of OM due to disturbance could have cascading effects throughout these ecosystems. As a result, we see the assessment of OM dynamics as a crucial component to determine the overall functional condition of streams, and as an integral tool to meet the needs of industry and regulators to evaluate mitigation efforts through direct measurement of a crucial stream functions. To address these needs we are measuring litterfall input, leaf litter decomposition, and periphyton biomass accrual for reconstructions of eight low‐order mining‐impacted streams, and evaluating them via comparison to four minimally impacted reference streams. Relationships of these functional measures with physical, chemical, and biological structural measures are also being investigated.
  • Temporal Dynamics of Benthic Macroinvertebrate Communities and Their Response to Elevated TDS in Appalachian Coalfield Streams
    Boehme, Elizabeth A.; Schoenholtz, Stephen H.; Soucek, David J.; Timpano, Anthony J. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    Maintaining integrity of benthic macroinvertebrate communities in Appalachian coalfield headwater streams is a key concern. Total dissolved solids (TDS) are ubiquitous as dissolved constituents in surface waters and often occur at elevated levels in streams draining Appalachian coal mines. Most TDS in surface waters originate from the dissolution of rock and mineral materials that are exposed to the natural elements; this process is accelerated in mining regions, as surface mines cause large volumes of fresh, unweathered rock material to be fractured, brought to the surface, and exposed to accelerated weathering processes. The concentration of TDS is closely related to specific conductance (SC), which is the ability for water to conduct a current at 25º C. We have been conducting research to identify benthic macroinvertebrate community composition relationships with TDS in southwestern Virginia’s mining area, where geology and environmental conditions are similar to adjacent coal‐mining areas of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. This report summarizes the first year of a two‐year study, aimed to expand understanding of temporal variability within the benthic macroinvertebrate community in elevated‐TDS streams. Eleven sets of benthic macroinvertebrate and water quality grab samples have been collected to date and are being analyzed; and continuous conductivity loggers have been installed in all streams. Sampling will conclude in November 2012.
  • Long-Term Effects of Herbaceous Species and Trees on Reclaimed Mine Soil Properties
    McMillen, K.; Letalik, Melanie; Carver, E.; Abaye, Azenegashe Ozzie; Zipper, Carl E.; Fannon-Osborne, Amy G. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    The selection of plant species is critical for successful establishment and long-term maintenance of vegetation on reclaimed surface mined soils. Over long terms, the plant species present on reclaimed coal mine sites may also influence surface soil properties and, by extension, related site properties such as surface hydrology. We conducted research to compare effects of 4 herbaceous species on reclaimed mine soil properties over 20 years, and to compare these herbaceous species’ effects to those produced by planted trees. The herbaceous experimental treatments were installed in summer 1990 on partially reclaimed mine soils. The experimental design was a complete block, with each plant-species treatments replicated 4 times. Prior to revegetation, a composted mixture of wood chips and biosolids was mixed into the soil to provide initial nutrients. No other fertilizer was applied after the initial fertilization. The plots have been mowed annually to stimulate re-growth. The plant species with greatest persistence and biomass production over two decades are switchgrass, sericea lespedeza, reed canarygrass, tall fescue, and crownvetch. An adjacent area, reclaimed in association with the herbaceous experimental area, was planted with herbaceous species initially and then replanted with trees of various species in the early 1990s. In Summer of 2011, the herbaceous vegetation plots and six locations within the adjacent area planted with trees were sampled and characterized for soil properties.
  • Project Coal to Electricity
    Altizer, Barbara F.; Presley, Marsha R.; Fannon-Osborne, Amy G.; Zipper, Carl E. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    Provide teachers a week long field experience to improve their understanding of a variety of environmental and economic issues relating to coal extraction, preparation, transportation, and utilization. Also, to introduce them to actual reclamation, acquaint them with the reclamation of surface mine sites for a variety of post-mining land use options and educate them about reclamation practices. Presentations are directed toward the development of lesson plans encompassing the Standards of Learning for teachers whose responsibilities include Virginia Studies, natural resources in grades 3, 4, 5, and 6, Civics & Economics, or Earth Science. Our program has exceeded the borders of Virginia into surrounding states such as Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina. Due to this expansion, we will re-evaluate the standards of learning to a national base instead of the Virginia base standards.
  • Mined Land Reclamation to Restore Forest Land Capability: Spoil Type and Seeding Effects
    Koropchak, Sara; Burger, James A.; Zipper, Carl E.; Evans, Daniel M. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    The purpose of this study is to investigate differences in tree survivorship and growth among several tree species on different soil/spoil materials on a reclaimed coal surface mine in West Virginia. Trees were planted in various substrates (soil and spoil types) to determine how spoil type and ground cover seeding affects tree survival, tree growth, and emergence of the full plant community. Soil/ spoil treatments were divided such that half of each substrate-treatment plot received either “tree compatible” herbaceous seeding or no seeding. This report describes the study layout and provides initial tree planting and survival data. It is intended as an initial report and documentation of study implementation and design. No substantive conclusions are drawn from these results, as longer time periods will be required to determine how reforestation success may have been affected by the soil and seeding treatments applied.
  • A Study to Determine the Preference for Nesting Box Design of Sialia sialis (Eastern Bluebird): Comparison of the Traditional Nesting Box and the Peterson Box
    Burkart, Carol A.; Russo, Anthony; Baker, W.; Belcher, M. H.; Brown, B.; Collins, J.; Crouse, N.; Dickenson, A.; Dotson, H.; Evans, T.; Funk, B.; Goforth, A.; Hall, L.; Helbert, S.; Hobbs, L.; Ingle, K.; Jessee, S.; McDaries, J.; Mullins, B.; Odle, C.; Orndorff, E.; Page, C.; Pillkenton, K.; Price, T.; Smith, S. (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    For the 2012 nesting season along the trail at the Powell River Education Center, nesting preferences were studied comparing the traditional box design and the Peterson box. Peterson boxes differ from the traditional boxes in that they have a lower internal volume, requiring less material for nest construction. By decreasing the amount of energy that the parents would have to put into nest building, they would have more energy available for rearing young, hence increasing fledgling success. The Peterson box was found to be an acceptable design by the three species that nest along the trail. Bluebirds, tree swallows and chickadees utilized the Peterson boxes; however, bluebirds built most of their nests in the traditional boxes (six clutches in traditional boxes to one in a Peterson box). Chickadees produced four nests, three of which were in traditional boxes. Both tree swallow clutches were in Peterson boxes. Egg and chick loss due to predation was high this season (11 eggs and 8 chicks) making it difficult to conclude whether the design of the Peterson box affected fecundity. Student volunteers from both the general biology and human anatomy and physiology classes at Mountain Empire Community College assisted in the installation of the Peterson boxes and the monitoring of nesting activity during the course of the breeding season.
  • Predicting TDS Release from SW Virginia Soil-Overburden Sequences
    Johnson, Daniel K.; Orndorff, Zenah W.; Daniels, W. Lee (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    Release of total dissolved solids (TDS) from Appalachian coal mine spoils to headwater streams has emerged as a significant concern for the coal mining industry, its regulatory agencies, and non‐governmental organizations. The overall objective of this project is to develop a new set of techniques to reliably predict the amount, ionic composition, and temporal pattern of TDS release from a range of spoil and overlying soil materials from regional coal surface mines. This project was initiated in 2010 with sole support from Powell River Project. In 2011/2012 we received significant parallel funding for this program from the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science (ARIES) to support our collaboration with the University of Kentucky and West Virginia University to broaden the scope to the central Appalachian region while continuing to focus on SW Virginia in more detail. Therefore, we are utilizing Powell River Project (PRP) funds to focus specifically on the determination of TDS release potentials of soilsaprolite‐hard rock sequences in SW Virginia. This information will better allow operators to determine the thickness and availability of low TDS forming strata for use in new and innovative mining and reclamation plans designed to limit TDS release to local streams.
  • Cows as a Biological Monitors of Surface Coal Mining Contamination of Biological Systems by Micro and Macro Element Toxins
    Whittier, William Dee (Virginia Tech. Powell River Project, 2012)
    The focus of this project is to demonstrate efficient and profitable production of beef cattle on surface mined land in southwestern Virginia. A herd of forty-five beef cows and ten replacement heifers owned by Penn Virginia Coal are being maintained at the Powell River Project demonstration site in Wise County. The owners have provided pasture; day to day care and management, supplemental feed as needed, and labor to care for the cattle. Virginia Tech, through the co-investigators, has provided advice and assistance with breeding and health management, marketing, maintenance of pasture productivity, record keeping, selection of sires as needed and strategies for obtaining replacements over time. The overriding goal is sustainable beef cattle production with minimum inputs so that costs can be kept low enough to generate profit. The phase of the project here reported deals with an investigation into the healthiness and healthfulness of cattle raised near a mining site on reclaimed strip-mined pastures.