Costly mine cleanup is sought

KITZMILLER — KITZMILLER -- Maryland's top budget officials will be asked this month to allocate money for the largest and costliest environmental cleanup of a coal mine in the state's history.

The state Board of Public Works is expected to vote June 22 on a $2.9 million contract to reclaim the old Vindex mine in southern Garrett County, where decades of strip and deep mining have left unsightly and dangerous hills of coal refuse.


Mining at the site -- about two miles north of here -- predated federal cleanup regulations.

The Vindex site was home to extensive deep-mine operations begun in 1903 by the Manor Coal Co. Surface mining came later. All mining ceased in the early 1950s.


The 74-acre tract's current owner, Douglas Coal Co., based in Elkins, W.Va., bought the land in 1967 but is not liable for the cleanup, state officials said.

State mining officials said the Douglas Coal Co. has never mined the site. If the company decides to mine the site, however, it would be responsible for reclaiming the land involved, those officials said.

Christopher Polino, president of the Douglas Coal Co., did not return phone calls.

The two-year cleanup being proposed by the state is intended to eliminate public-health and safety hazards at the Vindex mine.

The reclamation will include regrading to remove mounds of refuse, placing a layer of topsoil and planting vegetation.

The reclamation work will not stop acid-mine drainage -- which mining officials say is a major source of pollution of the North Branch of the Potomac River and its tributaries in Western Maryland.

Acidic discharge -- water polluted with high acidity, sulfates and metals -- flows from the mining operation.

That factor prompted the Board of Public Works to defer action on the contract when the contract was broached this month. The three-member board -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Comptroller Louis L. Goldstein and State Treasurer Lucille Maurer -- asked the State Bureau of Mines to find a way to treat acid-mine drainage, as well.


"Here the state was about to spend $3 million or more, and yet one aspect of a water-quality problem was not being addressed," said Mike Nelson, deputy assistant secretary for public lands and forestry for the state Department of Natural Resources.

Limited by federal policy

But Tony Abar, director of the Maryland Bureau of Mines, said the agency "would like to take care of [the water] problems. But we can't under current federal policy. There are benefits to this cleanup, but water quality is not a primary purpose."

The state is using federal dollars for the project, and federal law allows just 10 percent of an annual allocation for abandoned mine reclamation to go for such things as water quality. The state uses its annual allocation to help cover the cost of operating four lime dosers -- large machines that dump crushed limestone into the Potomac River and its tributaries to neutralize acidic discharges.

The dosers have been placed at the worst pollution sites along the river and its tributaries. Dosers are the most cost-effective and efficient means of treating mine drainage at this time, Mr. Abar said.

State mining officials are looking for additional money -- about $50,000 to operate a doser -- for the Vindex site.


Mining officials say they understand the board's concerns, but "we're dealing with 90 percent of the problem, and it is important that we go forward with [the project]," Mr. Nelson said. The Vindex reclamation will include steps to prevent sediment and other drainage from the site from entering the Potomac watershed.

Mr. Nelson said the Vindex reclamation is part of a much larger abandoned-mine reclamation program and the state's efforts to restore the North Branch of the Potomac River watershed.

More cleanup needed

Maryland has spent nearly $13.7 million to reclaim 1,180 acres of abandoned coal mines in Garrett and Allegany counties during the past 10 years. An additional 8,300 acres disturbed by coal mining require some degree of cleanup, state officials said.

Some of the land is being reclaimed naturally by vegetation. Other sites require reclamation similar to the Vindex site, including the removal of refuse piles and the elimination of hazardous high walls. Some sites need less work, such as stabilizing slopes.

The costliest reclamation project to date has been the Franklin Hill abandoned mine in western Garrett County, near Westernport. That $678,258 project entails stabilization of a landslide on 42 acres. Larger acreage elsewhere has been reclaimed, but the projects have been less costly, usually involving regrading and backfilling.


Mr. Abar said the bulk of the Vindex reclamation project will entail moving and regrading coal refuse known as "gobs" -- piles of a 50-50 mixture of rock and coal gleaned from mines but unusable because the coal could not be separated. Some of the gobs are 100 feet high -- roughly equivalent to a 10-story building.

Looks like 'Badlands'

The site "looks like something out of the Badlands in the Dakotas," Mr. Abar said.

The gobs, Mr. Abar said, pose safety hazards because they are flammable. Exposed to the elements, coal from the gobs seeps into Three Forks Run, a tributary of the Potomac River.

Gob -- and in some cases, stone -- will be used to fill in pits, including a 35-foot shaft, and water holes. Several buildings that were part of mining operations, but have long been derelict, will be removed.

Once regraded, the acreage will be covered with a topsoil mixture, and grass and other vegetation will be planted.


The surface mining area also will be filled with gob to eliminate a mile-long, 40-foot high wall. The wall poses a safety threat because it is 5 to 15 feet away from a public road, Mr. Abar said.

Maryland coal mines produce about 3 million tons of coal a year. The state has issued about 100 permits for mining in Garrett and Allegany counties, most of it surface-mining operations.

The state produces less than 1.5 percent of the nation's coal. Maryland coal production peaked at 5.5 million tons in 1907 and declined as low as 1.2 million tons in the late 1930s.