WV Water Research Institute receives grant to design better coal mines

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August 12, 2012 by Dave Saville, West Virginia Water Research Institute

Morgantown, W.Va.– “Begin with the end in mind.”  So advised the late Stephen Covey. And that concept is guiding West Virginia University researchers who are trying to rethink how mountaintop mining sites are designed.

Much attention is given to mountaintop mining’s impact on streams, but Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, says its rare to find a stream on a reclaimed mine.

“Mines are designed to minimize sediment production and create stable slopes to protect public safety,” he said. “Rainfall and snowmelt are generally directed into the re-sloped mine rock and down to the pit floor where it eventually seeps out and enters surface streams.”

So now, researchers are studying whether streams can be developed on mined sites that approach the properties and habitats of natural streams.

“Since you can’t wait until the mine is reclaimed to begin thinking about stream development, we are looking at how to design stream reconstruction into the mining and reclamation process,” he said.

Researchers Leslie Hopkinson and John Quaranta from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in WVU’s Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources were awarded a $224,000 grant from the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a modeling study, which will begin in September and conclude in August 2015.

The study will adapt an innovative technique that uses “geomorphic landform design.” Geomorphic reclamation is an emerging technique that tries to recreate the original surface forms around a mined area. The approach is intended to mimic the drainage patterns of a natural landscape.

Hopkinson explained that state and federal regulations have been designed to control environmental impacts associated with mountaintop mining and valley fill construction, but concerns over the loss of headwater stream length, flooding risk and degraded water quality remain.

“We are rethinking mine fills by investigating the effects of improved hydraulics, stream networks and natural contours,” Hopkinson said. “This research will also examine the flooding potential of our approach versus traditional reclamation practices.”

One of the goals of geomorphic design is to create landforms that do not require continuing maintenance to prevent erosion. The geomorphic technique was developed at coal mining sites in New Mexico in 2009 and is believed to provide a more diverse and natural-looking wildlife habitat in addition to the erosion advantages.

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the National Institutes for Water Resources, offers competitive research grants for topics that involve, “improving and enhancing the nation’s water supply focusing on water problems and issues of a regional or interstate nature beyond those of concern only to a single State.”

These grants promote collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey and university scientists in research on significant national and regional water resources issues.

WVU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is committed to meeting the economic and environmental challenges of our times by educating professionals with cutting-edge skills and conducting innovative, cross-disciplinary research to solve our nation’s infrastructure challenges.

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CONTACT: Glenn Waldron, (304) 293-7085

The West Virginia Water Research Institute, a program of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University, serves as a statewide vehicle for performing research related to water issues. WVWRI is the premiere water research center in West Virginia and, within selected fields, an international leader.