Reclaiming Iowa's Abandoned Coal Mine Lands

May 31, 2017 | 9 min

(This video was originally broadcast on Iowa Outdoors, Episode 702, May 31, 2017.)

To the average individual driving across Iowa, they may assume that our state's single greatest resource is at the soil level and above. But look below the corn and soybeans and you'll find an even richer story. A generation before modern conservation efforts, Iowa mining companies laid siege to the natural resources of Southern Iowa. Today, the clock is ticking on mine reclamation efforts to save the land for the next generation.

Tucked behind the rolling hills of southern Iowa hides the story of an industry that once fueled our state and the nation. Without question, the first real boom crop of Iowa was coal. With coal having been discovered across 26 Iowa counties, from the 1840s to the 1970s, more than 12,000 acres of Iowa land were mined. Over 40 years since the last coal mine closed, remnants of this once thriving industry are still visible, that being hundreds of abandoned surface mines. 

Susan Kozak, Mines and Minerals Bureau: So the surface mining law came into effect in 1977 so anything prior to that didn't have any regulations on coal mining. And so that is what happened here, the people would come out, they would mine, they would toss the good topsoil behind them, they would put all the spoil of the trail on top of that and then just walk away when they got all the coal out and move onto the next site. 

With abandoned mines ranging in size from a few acres to well over 100, sites such as this one just south of Attica are impressive visually, but they are also a perfect representation of environmental indifference. The detrimental effects of these sites impacts rivers, soils, wildlife habitats and quality of life miles from their locations. 

Bobby Kuennen, Mines and Minerals Bureau: You can see the red water that is coming off these sites, what we call acid mine drainage, and it's a very low pH, high iron levels in this water that is coming off these sites and going into the adjacent streams, which eventually will get into, at this point, into the Des Moines River, which is used for a lot of these communities' water source. 

Today, the abandoned mine land staff of the state Mines and Minerals Bureau heads the effort to reclaim these sites. Since 1983, Mines and Minerals has developed a statewide site inventory, interpreting and ranking environmental assessments for each site, and working with landowners to develop reclamation plans that best suit the land use of each project. 

Randy Cooney, Mines and Minerals Bureau: Every site is a little different and responds a little different, but the key point to keep in mind here is all of the mine spoil and everything that was here before is still here and all we have done in the excavation process was move it around, we created slopes that are more gentle, less likely for erosion, but it's still there and it's going to take it a while for it to bounce back and support that vegetation. 

Transforming a mine from abandoned dormancy, to active reclamation project, to treated and seeded Earth, is an arduous process. But the most important stage comes from landowners themselves wherein conservative land management will allow the reclamation to hold. 

Todd Teach, Farmer, Ottumwa: The more years that go by, the more you will be able to graze it. It is going to be a slow process. But right now it is in a state that is pretty fragile. You can let cattle in, rotate them for a few days, and take them back out. But that is the biggest management part right there, is not letting the cattle continuously run on it.

Two years past the active stage of reclamation, Todd Teach's land is showing vibrant signs of life with grass growing, wildlife returning and a much healthier watershed. 

Todd Teach: There was no cattails growing in the old site or the water or anything. The pH was just way low and it wouldn't support any life, where now you've got frogs and stuff is growing in it. 

While the environmental impacts are great, the first priority for Mines and Minerals, is actually safety. As many landowners have discovered, these areas tend to be attractive nuisances to reckless youth and animals that have no understanding of a mine's dangers.

Susan Kozak: A lot of times landowners, if they have cattle, we'll hear stories of where cattle will get down into these mud areas and get stuck and die. And so that is one of the big hazards with these areas.

Before a mine comes close to looking like Todd's, the active process of reclamation is where the real work takes place. Just east of Knoxville, this site is a good representation of the many characteristics of an abandoned mine. 

Bobby Kuennen: So we have the high wall, we usually have the low area, which is the pond, and then we have the piles behind it. 

Spoil piles, high walls and pit ponds are found at virtually every abandoned mine with each situation representing a different hazard. Spoil piles typify the remnants of hazardous materials and stripped Earth. High walls often hide treacherous cliffs to animals and humans and pit ponds are stagnant pools of dangerously acidic mine runoff that can sit for decades without draining. 

Randy Cooney: We get some of our sites that would be turquoise or orange in color virtually clear, you can see down in because there's nothing surviving in them. 

Recovering mistreated land looks a lot like a construction site, with bulldozers and Earth movers clearing debris, establishing gentle hillsides for drainage, and filling in the low lying area with natural material before draining any remaining runoff. 

Todd Teach: When there's something growing that's a good sign. 

Randy Cooney: If it will grow weeds, it will grow grass. 

As none of Iowa's reclaimed mines are on public land, ultimately private landowners are responsible for the long-term success of reclamation efforts. So in the final stage of land management, a farmer's knowledge of caring for their soil becomes extremely important. 

Todd Teach: Any time you're adding that compost it makes the ground healthier from what it is. You're building the organic matter up in it, especially this type of ground, it can use all the organic matter it can get. There's just virtually none in it. 

Randy Cooney: One thing that they have to keep in mind right away is even though this no longer resembles the mine site that it was before, it is still not the same as other property they may have and this is going to take a lot more care to make sure that you're not overgrazing or you're not mowing it too low or if you happen to take hay off from it you don't cut it three times a year. 

While Todd's land is vibrant and prospering, there are still many sites waiting to be reclaimed. In the 30 plus years Mines and Minerals has been tasked with reclaiming surface mines, only 100 different sites have been restored. 

Susan Kozak: It is a little bit disconcerting to know how far we have to go, that we've been working at this for 30 years and we're only a third of the way through of our sites. And depending on the future of the program, it is set to sunset in 2021, I'm optimistic for a reauthorization so that we'll continue the work, but we don't know that future yet. 

A year after our first visit to Attica, reclamation efforts are finally underway. And while the wheels of conservation may be deliberate, one by one the environmental blights of Southern Iowa are slowly but surely being erased from Iowa's countryside. 

Susan Kozak: It's excitement to see everything that we get done because this is from pre-reclamation to almost done and then in a year we'll have grass out here and it will be very hard to tell that it was an abandoned mine site at that point. 

Randy Cooney: It requires a lot of patience because the process is not quick and there is such an inventory and limitations on dollars that every landowner would like to see theirs done, most of them, and they'd like to see it done yesterday and it just doesn't happen that quick. It will be way beyond our careers that this is going on but the satisfaction comes at that point when we can drive by and go, we had a small hand in that. 

Gilchrist Foundation