Local News

May 30, 2013

NRCS updating list of local abandoned mines

OSKALOOSA — Mahaska County has a rich history of coal mining. Starting in the 1840s, people began to pursue the coal that underlay the fertile farm ground in Southeastern Iowa.

The coal that was mined in these early years was primarily done by cutting tunnels into the hills to retrieve the coal. This continued through the early 1900s until the development of machinery which was large enough to remove the surface of the earth to access the coal. This practice is known as surface mining.

Surface mining is often detrimental to water quality and local wildlife populations.

Iowa coal is no longer mined due to its inability to meet the EPA’s emission standards. This is due to its high concentrations of sulfur. Even though Iowa coal is no longer burned, this excess sulfur is still causing environmental issues right here at home. When iron sulfide is exposed to air and water, it reacts to form iron oxide — rust — and sulfuric acid. The iron oxide and sulfuric acid then often runs off into surface water. These compounds can turn creeks and streams into a lifeless flow of acid — sometimes as low as 2.0 pH.

Aside from the impacts to drinking water, these old mine sites can be dangerous to livestock herds and even human life. Associated with these sites there is often a sudden drop off upwards of 80 feet. This drop off is referred to as the highwall. This is where the excavator took the last vertical cut into the hillside.

As gloomy as it sounds, there is hope to improve stream quality. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Office of Surface Mining is allotted several million dollars annually to reclaim these sites. Reclamation entails reshaping the area to what is believed to be the natural lay of the land then liming the residual soil until it attains a pH tolerable for plant growth. A huge assortment of seed is then broadcast across the area in order to regain a ground cover. The reclamation process can be long and costly but is free to the landowner. The expenses of reclamation are picked up by the state of Iowa.

In the early 1900s, records were poor and no account was ever taken on the location of all these mine sites. Today, officials are attempting to update the inventory of surface mines here in Mahaska County. This will allow them to make better management decisions concerning the many streams and rivers in Southeast Iowa. They have what they believe to be an extensive inventory of the abandoned mines in Mahaska County but there in undoubtedly some they are unaware of.

If you are interested in reclamation or believe you have an abandoned coal mine on your land, inform officials of its location by calling the Mahaska County NRCS office at 673-3476 Ext. 3. Understand that by reporting your mine site in no way will it require you to reclaim the site nor will it add any burden to you as a landowner. The NRCS simply just would like to update their inventory to better understand the environmental impacts of mining in Mahaska County.


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