Opportunities for improved surface mine reclamation in the central Appalachian coal region

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

The Appalachian coal mining region is subject to a number of environmental and economic problems; many are a result of the steeply sloping topography. The extensive surface mining activities in the area appear to offer the opportunity to produce more favorable landforms at minimum marginal costs. Yet, despite this apparent opportunity and the success of research efforts to develop improved mine soil construction and revegetation techniques, the majority of the mining and reclamation activities in the Virginia coal region are carried out using conventional methods: reconstructing steeply sloping mining areas to their approximate original contours.

The purpose of this research was to estimate the costs of coal surface mine reclamation methods designed to prepare mined lands for improved use in areas of steeply sloping topography. During the course of this research, a computer-based mining and reclamation cost estimating system was developed. COSTSUM is a set of seven programs designed to analyze data from active surface mining sites to determine spoil handling and reclamation costs. OPSIM is a surface mining simulator designed to estimate the differences in spoil handling costs among reclamation and postmining landform alternatives.

This cost-estimating system was utilized during an intensive study of mining and reclamation costs at a surface mining site in Wise County, Virginia, where a number of improved reclamation practices were implemented. At this site, a steeply sloping premining topography was transformed to a postmining landform containing an extensive near-level area covered with deep, uncompacted, potentially productive mine soils. Analysis of daily records of operations revealed that the cost of mining and reclaiming this site was comparable to industry average costs in the area in spite of departure from conventional methods. The results of simulation procedures indicated that the cost of mining so as to produce this landscape was less than than the estimated cost of conventional mining methods. Since the topography of the site is typical of surrounding areas, there are opportunities to produce near-level landforms with deep, productive soils as a byproduct of coal surface mining activities.