RUSSELL COUNTY, Va. - Prior to 1977, there were no strict regulations concerning reclaiming coal mined lands. That, coupled with large users of coal looking for a certain type and size of coal.
That created mountains of unusable coal and by products known as gob piles.
After 1977, regulations began to collect a reclamation fee from coal mines to help clean up these old mine sites.
It took years to find a market for the product that has been laying in these piles. A view from ridge top to ridge top on a windy day in Southwest Virginia is actually a view from a mountain of coal waste called a gob pile, piled up over decades because it was unsellable for coal companies.
"Anything less than two inches or three inches on down to zero in size was dumped over the hill, and that's why there's hundreds of these old tailing piles in Southwest Virginia. There was no market for it in the early 1900s," says Walt Crickmer with GOBCO, LLC, a company that cleans up these piles.
So like this one along Hurricane Creek in Russell County, it was left to accumulate and left abandoned. "This pile is three quarters of a mile long. The toe of this pile dumps into Dump Creek it's called actually and each year the water action in that creek erodes nearly a railroad car of coal fines, one hundred tons that goes three miles down this creek and dumps right into the Clinch River basin," Crickmer said.
"Hurricane Creek gob pile is the single worse mining related impact to water quality in the entire Clinch River watershed," adds Richard Davis with the Virginia Depatment of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
With reclamation funds collected since 1977 from coal production and the construction of Dominion Power Company's hybrid energy plant in Saint Paul, sites like this are slowly being cleaned up. "There was not place to take this product to get rid of it and clean the pile up. When the power plant got built, the plant's designed to run on lower-BTU waste type coal. We can use this product now because of Dominion Power," Crickmer says.
This one gets attention because it threatens water quality in the Clinch River, but there are hundreds more just like it.
The problem will take the contractor four years to complete.
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