Upholding Strong Environmental Values: A Key Strategy at Arch Coal

By Jim Meier
Director of Environmental Affairs, Arch Coal

Coal is an important, naturally occurring energy source that provides numerous life-enhancing benefits to the global community. Out of respect for the land that bears this valuable resource, Arch Coal is committed to superior environmental protection during each phase of the mining process. Protecting the environment carries such importance that upholding strong safety and environmental values is a key element in Arch’s four-point operating strategy. While we take pride in our industry-leading environmental performance, we are constantly striving to better ourselves, our techniques, and our processes.

Protection of the environment is integrated into every phase of the mining process, from exploration and development to active mining and reclamation. Even before beginning the permitting process, we assess—through a series of onsite studies—the potential for environmental impacts, and implement mitigation plans to minimize those effects. As a result of this dedication to environmental excellence, Arch has received numerous U.S. Department of the Interior and state environmental protection and reclamation awards. These awards recognize such diverse projects as establishing woodlands, greenlands, and wetlands, as well as natural habitat restoration and enhancement.

Arch is the most geographically diversified coal producer in the U.S., with large-scale mining operations in every major coal basin. A majority of Arch’s subsidiaries operate in either Appalachia in the eastern U.S. or the Powder River Basin (PRB) in the west. Each area has distinct terrains, habitat, and wildlife, which creates both challenges and opportunities. Thus, reclamation projects are approached differently based on the local ecosystem to ensure that mined land is restored to its original pre-mining condition or better. Often land that has been reclaimed is indistinguishable from surrounding terrain within just a few growing seasons.

APPALACHIAN RECLAMATION REQUIREMENTS SPUR INNOVATIVE SOLUTIONS

Appalachia’s mountainous terrain presents unique challenges throughout the reclamation process. Surface mining in this region represents a very small percentage—less than 3%—of Arch’s overall production platform, but we take great pride in our reclamation efforts in this segment of our business. We return the land to its approximate original contour while also providing opportunities to develop areas that are attractive and useful to both the animal inhabitants and local residents.

For instance, Arch’s Mingo Logan’s Left Fork surface operation implemented reclamation practices to ensure area wildlife can thrive in a post-mining environment. This award-winning site is unique as all phases of surface mining can be observed on a single-permit area—from preparation of new mining areas through 15-year-old mature reclamation. Mingo Logan personnel worked closely with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to prepare multiple wildlife food plots across the permit area with the goal of supplementing food supply for native species during times of lean mast production (i.e., low production of acorns, other forest tree nuts, and fruit-bearing trees).

The sun rises over the eastern portion of the Left Fork reclamation area in West Virginia.

The sun rises over the eastern portion of the Left Fork reclamation area in West Virginia.

These plots were planted with newly developed “Arch Tree Mix”—a seed blend collaboration between the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and the mine operation. This seed blend has been proven to grow quickly, preventing erosion while enhancing soil chemistry. The plots are also supplemented with chicory and turnips, to provide additional nourishment to a range of species, including deer and bears, well into the winter months. These restoration efforts have been a centerpiece of many of Mingo Logan’s Mountain Laurel’s environmental awards—including state reclamation awards and the coveted National Good Neighbor award given by the U.S. Interior Department.

Arch also has successfully created more than 200 acres of new wetlands on reclaimed lands in Central Appalachia—where wetlands are scarce. These new water sources, as well as the open fields and diverse terrain that exist after reclamation, attract and sustain an abundance of native wildlife, including rabbits, turkey, deer, fox, owls, hawks, and black bears.

WESTERN TERRAIN REQUIRES DIFFERENT RECLAMATION TECHNIQUES

The Powder River Basin (PRB) is a significant coal mining area. Arch estimates that the electricity used by one out of every six homes and businesses in the U.S. is produced from coal mined in Wyoming. It is also an important operating area for Arch Coal and its Thunder Basin Coal Company (TBCC) subsidiary. TBCC operates two surface mines in northeastern Wyoming: Black Thunder, one of the largest coal mines in the world, and Coal Creek. Although it supplies more than 11% of America’s coal supply, Black Thunder’s mine footprint comprises only 1/4000th of Wyoming’s land area.

Many wildlife species thrive on TBCC reclaimed lands and active mining areas. Reclamation efforts include returning the land to the former native habitats: grasslands, short-grass prairies, shrub-steppes, and riparian areas. Rock piles provide cover for rabbits and other small animals, which in turn attract predators. Herds of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope benefit from more plentiful water sources and vegetative cover on previously mined lands.

GREATER SAGE-GROUSE SUCCESS STORY

Arch’s successful integration of mining and reclamation with habitat protection results from going above and beyond regulatory requirements, as well as working closely with state and federal regulatory agencies and local communities. Protection and propagation of the greater sage-grouse is just one example of a positive outcome of these efforts.

TBCC, and the broader coal mining community, worked extensively for more than five years with state and local conservation groups to protect the greater sage-grouse and to ensure that coal mining in northeastern Wyoming could continue without endangering the species. The greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America, found in sagebrush country in the western U.S., including Wyoming. The bird’s numbers began declining in the latter 20th century in many areas, which resulted in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposal to list the grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

As a preventive measure, Wyoming’s governor created a task force, including members of TBCC’s operations, to develop core protection areas and to provide stipulations for development within these areas to conserve and to expand the species through habitat enhancement. Sage-grouse conservation practices put in place at Arch’s Black Thunder and Coal Creek mines include restricted hunting, mosquito control in surface water impoundments to reduce West Nile virus, management of invasive species, dust control measures, removal and marking of fences near breeding grounds, and habitat enhancement projects on both reclaimed and native lands that will not be mined. As a result of these efforts, and the efforts of others, the Department of Interior decided in September 2015 that it was not necessary to list the greater sage-grouse as an endangered species.

TBCC’S AVIAN PROTECTION AND MITIGATION PRACTICES

While supporting the natural habitat for all wildlife indigenous to the Powder River Basin, TBCC has made substantial efforts to provide particular protection for the area’s avian population on both reclaimed lands and active mining sites. These efforts have included providing adequate habitat on reclaimed lands, providing new and replacement nesting structures, rescuing and relocating birds as needed, and developing a comprehensive Avian Protection Plan (APP) for both mines.

The protection plan was prepared in accordance with the “Suggested Practices for Avian Protection on Power Lines: The State of the Art in 2006”1 developed by Edison Electric Institute’s Avian Power Line Interaction Committee. The goal was to inventory all onsite electrical structures for possible avian hazards and to outline a remediation plan to replace or retrofit problem structures.

The initial work needed to locate, evaluate, and prioritize risk for each structure was a major undertaking. All TBCC above-ground electrical structures, including power poles, portable and permanent substations, and metering points, were scrutinized and the location of each structure was recorded with a hand-held GPS device.

Once the initial evaluation was completed, a five-year plan was developed to retrofit or remove problem structures, and was then submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review and approval. Since the plan was implemented in 2011, TBCC has worked to eliminate potential hazards, including removal of power lines and poles, insulating jumper and guy wires, putting insulating caps on bushings, removing older electrical structures, and providing alternate perches near substations. Consequently, there has been only one avian fatality suspected to be related to mining operations at Black Thunder, with no incidents at Coal Creek, since mid-2010.

A key component of the protection plan provided that all TBCC employees be educated about state and federal laws protecting avian species, and additional public outreach was conducted with mine-site neighbors. Each year TBCC management meets with local ranchers whose operations are near the mine sites to communicate mining plans and to review federal laws protecting eagles and migratory birds. At these meetings, participants discuss how they can help protect birds on their property and what to do if they find an injured raptor on their ranch.

Employees also routinely work with local rehabilitation centers to rescue and return injured birds to the wild.

AVIAN PROTECTION PLAN: A SAFE HAVEN

A number of reclamation practices are used to ensure that Arch’s reclaimed habitat provides the needed forage, nesting, and cover to protect the avian population. Specific seed mixes using native cool- and warm-season grasses, shrubs, forbs, and trees species were developed to replicate the original habitat, and the reclaimed surface topography was designed to simulate the native contour. Habitat features incorporated into final reclamation practices include rock piles, brush piles, tree plantings, and tree snags to simulate native conditions.

Raptor mitigation and monitoring plans were developed and implemented at the mines in the 1980s. These plans are reviewed and revised periodically to address future mining plans and any potential impacts to nesting birds. A series of nesting platforms were erected around the mine sites to replace existing nests and to entice birds to nest on reclaimed land for the first time.

Mitigation nest sites also were constructed for golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, Swainson’s hawks, great horned owls, burrowing owls, and American kestrels. The most commonly used mitigation structure is a platform placed on poles ranging from six feet to 20 feet above the ground with nesting material placed atop the platform.

Arch’s reclaimed land creates a safe haven for golden eagles and other avian species.

Arch’s reclaimed land creates a safe haven for golden eagles and other avian species.

Other types of mitigation nest sites have been constructed using natural substrate including trees, rock outcrops, banks, and the ground. Ferruginous hawk mitigation nest sites were constructed on rock piles placed in reclaimed areas.

Burrowing owls are common visitors to this area and are under consideration for listing as an endangered species. Black Thunder personnel have installed burrowing owl boxes in reclamation areas to help this struggling species survive and to provide additional nesting habitat.

There are a number of great horned owls in the mine’s vicinity. Nesting boxes have been placed next to an equipment yard where the owls have been known to use site equipment as nesting sites. Hopes are that the nesting boxes will be more attractive to the owls than the equipment, and potential disturbance due to movement will be minimized.

Tree snags also have been placed around the mine sites. Tree snags are trees growing in areas that will be mined, or ones that are dead but still standing. These trees are cut off at the ground and re-erected in reclaimed areas and around the site in advance of mining to provide attractive areas for nests and to detour birds away from active mining areas.

WATERFOWL AND SHOREBIRD MITIGATION EFFORTS

Two specific aquatic habitats provide a snapshot into Arch’s dedication to protecting waterfowl and shorebirds.

Prior to the area being mined, Reno Reservoir was located on Little Thunder Reservoir’s main stem in what is now the center of Black Thunder’s reclamation site. Pronghorn Lake was built as a replacement reservoir not far from Reno Reservoir’s original site on a combination of TBCC-owned land and U.S. Forest Service grasslands. It is a 600-acre-foot reservoir with a surface area of approximately 60 acres with several features designed to enhance wildlife habitat. The irregular shoreline supports breeding waterfowl by providing visual barriers between territorial pairs of the same species. The lake is designed to maintain a water depth of five feet or less to encourage emergent vegetation, and it is also designed to spill frequently to maintain water quality. Deeper sections of the lake provide excellent fish habitat, while the gently sloping shoreline allows safe and easy access to the water for livestock and other animals.

The lake also includes a large island, which provides a predator refuge for birds and an additional breeding ground. The island is designed so that it is not subject to excessive wind and waves or high-velocity flow, preventing shoreline erosion, which enhances vegetation growth and reduces sedimentation.

Downstream, TBCC built a 240-acre-foot reservoir with a surface area of 40 acres that serves as ultimate sediment control for a good portion of Black Thunder lands. A number of features not normally associated with a sedimentation reservoir were incorporated into the construction to enhance wetland, fishery, and waterfowl habitat, including islands that provide protected nesting habitat for various waterfowl species. Pools were incised next to the islands to increase water depth for fish during drought periods, while irregular shorelines encourage emergent vegetation and provide wind protection.

Both reservoir designs provide complementary features for waterfowl and other wildlife. Pronghorn Lake is a deeper pond, although the sediment reservoir is shallower. These two areas provide water year round for waterfowl, as well as staging areas during spring and fall migration. Recent wildlife surveys documented nearly 40 different species of shorebirds and waterfowl using these two areas.

Waterfowl surveys also indicate the lakes’ ecosystems have developed enough to support a diverse group of waterfowl including fish-eaters. In the past, these species had been just overnight visitors as there was not an adequate food source. More recently, pelicans were documented residing at these lakes for more than a month during spring migration.

Pelicans rest on an island of the Black Thunder reclamation site reservoir, an area that provides an adequate food source during spring migration.

Pelicans rest on an island of the Black Thunder reclamation site reservoir, an area that provides an adequate food source during spring migration.

Double-crested cormorants also have been observed sharing the island in Pronghorn Lake with Canada geese. Cormorant brooding success was documented at Pronghorn Lake, further evidence that the reclaimed reservoir’s ecosystem has developed enough to provide ample habitat for yet another species to rear its young.

In addition to traditional waterfowl, bald eagles, which are winter visitors to this region of Wyoming, are frequently seen on Pronghorn Lake.

Pronghorn Lake supports a diverse group of waterfowl year round.

Pronghorn Lake supports a diverse group of waterfowl year round.

THE RESULTS ARE EVIDENT

TBCC’s avian protection and mitigation practices have been quite successful in supporting the area’s native bird species. In fact, the program was awarded the 2014 Wyoming Reclamation award by the Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Annual wildlife data show that the reclaimed area provides the needed avian habitat, and raptor mitigation efforts have been successful. Studies also show that the reclaimed area provides adequate habitat for the birds as both migrants and residents.

Wildlife monitoring also documented that certain species observed in the area are successfully breeding on reclaimed areas. Mitigation efforts have been successful in minimizing mining impacts on nesting raptors with the successful relocation of nests. Reclaimed water features provide ample habitat for both migrant and nesting waterfowl, and efforts to minimize impacts due to electrical hazards have been extremely effective. Both Black Thunder and Coal Creek mine sites and their reclaimed areas continue to attract avian species, including those that are sensitive to human activities, as they arrive on site and migrate through, or become residents who successfully raise their young.

Canada Geese enjoy the reclaimed land.

Canada Geese enjoy the reclaimed land.

ARCH’S ONGOING COMMITMENT

Arch is acutely aware that a core component of long-term business success is effective environmental management. From the top of the organization down, our employees are committed to adhering to the highest standards of environmental protection. While our past success is demonstrated by our award-winning reclamation efforts and achievement of final stage bond release across our operating platform, we are constantly striving to improve.

REFERENCES

  1. Avian Power Line Interaction Committee. (2006). Suggested practices for avian protection on power lines: The state of the art in 2006. Edison Electric Institute, www.dodpif.org/downloads/APLIC_2006_SuggestedPractices.pdf

For more information on Arch’s reclamation activities, please visit www.archcoal.com/environment/reclamation.aspx

 

The content in Cornerstone does not necessarily reflect the views of the World Coal Association or its members.
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