November 13, 2011
Reclamation plans should be flexible to suit various end uses and market environments.
While planting doesn’t eliminate all signs of mining, it can create interesting green space.
Increasingly, mines are engaging in concurrent roles of production and reclamation.
Reclamation 2011: Streamlined and Sustainable
Back to Basics
A decade ago, mine reclamation plans were often shiny and sparkly: waterfront homes, deluxe shopping centers, and championship golf courses. In fact, the post-mining value of the land was sometimes higher than that of the mineral reserves, enticing some operators into the business of real estate development rather than aggregate production.
Today, however, large-scale commercial and residential projects are few and far between. Operators, like many Americans, are scaling back and returning to simpler post-mining land uses. Even California’s high-priced real estate market isn’t generating the same excitement for grandiose reclamation projects.
“We want to make our sites close to what they potentially used to look like,” says Bill Williams, general manager of Santa Rosa, Calif.-based BoDean Co., Inc. “Obviously, you’re going to have benches and things that didn’t exist before, but at some point, when it is fully reclaimed and you have mature trees on it, the idea is that it’s going to blend in with the surrounding environment.”
While open-space reclamation projects are increasingly common, other low-cost alternatives can also be achieved, particularly through cooperative partnerships with communities or non-profit groups.
“My first recommendation is to talk to the city or township to determine what their needs might include,” advises Wendy Schlett, senior project manager with GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., in Grand Rapids, Mich. “Mines can be re-purposed to meet community needs. One option is a water reservoir or similar project that is beneficial to the community. Or, the community may need a park and you start down the path of looking at what you want a park to look like.”
If the community doesn’t have an obvious need for the land, another option — one that may come with some unexpected benefits — is to partner with a non-profit to create a nature preserve. “We’re seeing that the non-profits are trying to find conservation projects or means to help save endangered species,” Schlett says. “They can help identify different paths to follow when it comes to reclamation. They can also help with volunteers and investors.”
Because mined properties often contain little plant life, they offer a blank slate that allows reclamation efforts to start from scratch, in terms of plantings and landscaping, to create favorable conditions for nurturing a particular type of animal.
“Ultimately, they’re going to be donating the land to the non-profit, so they don’t have to maintain it. Reclamation capable of maintaining an endangered species can garner higher tax credits,” Schlett says. “It generates a win for the operator. They might not have to pay for the entire cost of the reclamation, and then they get a higher value when they donate the land because it is worth more.”
Bill Williams is the general manager of Santa Rosa, Calif.-based BoDean Co., Inc. Prior to joining the company approximately 10 years ago, he worked in the financial industry. He has a bachelor’s degree in education, with an emphasis in history, from Concordia University, in Seward, Neb.
Wendy Schlett is a senior project manager with GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc., where she has worked for the last three years. She is a graduate from Western Michigan University with a bachelor’s degree in hydrogeology. Schlett is a member of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association’s Sustainability Task Force and Michigan Aggregates Association’s Environmental Committee. She also participates in the Industrial Minerals Association of North America. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
VOICES OF EXPERIENCE
Rather than waiting for a site to be mined out and then initiate reclamation, BoDean Co., Inc. reclaims its sites in a linear fashion. “Maybe the topography and our mining area allow us to do this,” says Bill Williams, general manager. “We excavate an area and mine the resource, and then move into a new territory. We remove the overburden and topsoil in the area to be mined and put it in the previously mined area. Then we compact it, seed it, and begin the process of reclamation.”
BoDean has gained national attention for its solar-powered plant (see “Sustainability Picks Up Steam,” Aggregates Manager, October 2011, p. 26), but Williams says that concurrent reclamation and mining was one of its earliest forays into sustainable operations and continues to be one of the programs of which it is most proud.
In addition to being environmentally friendly, its reclamation program is also pragmatic. “The market that we are in does not have a huge demand for fill projects,” Williams says. “That means we have to manage the overburden. It makes sense, to us, in managing it to put it directly into reclamation and to reclaim our slopes.”
One of the most unique features of BoDean’s reclamation effort is its commitment to moving redwood trees in the path of its mine development to portions of the site where mining is complete. “We’re not required to do it. It doesn’t make economic sense to do it, nor would it work with every type of tree in every environment,” Williams points out. “But for the redwoods, it works rather well.”
Several years ago, when the company moved into a new area of its Mark West Quarry, they began moving the trees, and concurrent mining made transplantation feasible. “Obviously, it’s a considerable expense, but it just makes us feel good about what we do,” Williams says.
As the company works through the site — 87 acres at the Mark West Quarry, with a pending permit application for another 65 acres — it may go several years without working on reclamation. Rather, it takes place in fits and starts, as a section is mined out.
“It doesn’t necessarily happen year by year or month by month, but when you’re in the process of reclamation, you’re in that process for one or two years,” Williams says. “You’re moving material. You’re compacting it. You’re planting. Then you go for a few years when you’re not.”
While the company has considered various end uses for its sites, BoDean’s current reclamation plans involve open space and vegetation, but Williams says it continues to look at various opportunities: “Twenty to 30 years from now, the ideas might change.”
More and more operators are planning their reclamation options long before mining is completed, and they are starting with a natural footprint in mind, says Wendy Schlett, senior project manager, based in the Grand Rapids, Mich., office of GZA GeoEnvironmental, Inc.
“They’re doing long-term planning, with planning taking place at the outset, but keeping a view toward changing regulations, as well as financial conditions, that will offer the best long-term value for the land,” Schlett explains. By evaluating how to mine the property from the outset, they’re able to address site challenges and plan efficiently.
“In some instances, aggregate mines have to deal with wetlands that may have developed in areas that may not have been used in a year or two,” she says. “They’re constantly trying to turn the material to ensure that wetlands aren’t generated.
“If the state happens to come out and conduct an inspection for general purposes, they may identify an area that the mine considers active, but the material may not have been moved in a couple of years,” she says. “The state is starting to qualify those areas as wetlands and taking them out of production.”
In Michigan, a wetland can be created within a couple of growing seasons. “It doesn’t take very long for seeds to spread,” Schlett notes. This requires that operators pay particular attention to areas that are not actively mined. By scraping the soils and ensuring that water is draining properly into the mine cavity or storm water system, operators can forestall wetlands development.
Once mining is completed, the site can be allowed to develop as a wetland and generate wetlands credits. “It’s still more in the concept stage,” Schlett says, “but one or two mines have taken this initiative. Another option includes identifying places to create carbon sinks and generating cap and trade credits. We’ve posed mine reclamation as the perfect scenario for that. Farmers are doing it, so why can’t we? We’ve got hundreds, if not thousands, of acres which would be perfect places to be reforested to create a carbon sink or used for wetland credits. Both options could be an investment for the mine.”
Schlett says that operators who offer sustainable solutions as part of their reclamation efforts garner goodwill. She worked with one client that created a preserve for an endangered species. “It not only helped the mine, because the mine ended up gaining a lot of positive publicity showcasing its community involvement and support,” she said, “but it also helped their customers, because they were seen as progressive, sustainable companies. If you’re able to pursue activities that are sustainable, involve the community, and generate a lot of good publicity, there’s definitely a market benefit.”