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One Rock at a Time: Reclaiming Former Coalfields for What’s Next

Like all fossil fuels, coal is a finite resource. There comes a point, though, when a mine is tapped out and must be closed. For centuries, most were just left abandoned. Then in 1977, a federal law levied a fee on mining companies to help cover costs of reclaiming former mine land. And going forward, it made that the responsibility of mine owners.

But as Robbie Harris tells us in part two of her series on abandoned coal mines, that doesn’t always happen.

Southwestern Virginia native Tammy Owens is a woman who isn’t afraid of a challenge. She used live in Kansas, where she spent 30 years transforming a conventional farm into an organic one. 

But when mother became ill, she moved back home to care for her.  And she bought 110 acres of former coal mining land in Dickenson County.

“I’m from the Appalachian Mountains, grew up in a small coal mining town.”

So she knew what mining can do to land and water. She also knew that the former owners had gone bankrupt and didn’t clean it up when they left.  

Dickenson County, Virginia, in red.

“And it’s not just my farm that’s like this.  It's the majority of the land that, even if it is reclaimed under the proper specs of the reclamation you’re still left with land that is shale rock. Absolutely no topsoil. The only thing that will thrive on this land is invasive species.”

So once again, she took on the task of transforming the land.  She found a logging company to deliver truckloads of sawdust and soil left over from its operations. And she planted cover crops, adding compost and manure to prepare the ground to grow native medicinal plants.

“Like Ginseng, Blood Root, Goldenseal, those things with high dollar value. And those things grow naturally here just like corn and soy grows naturally in the Midwest.”

In its day, southwest Virginia coal provided a good living for miners.  But Owens remembers the ‘bust’ cycles too. She says now is the time to sow the seeds of a new economy for the region.

“So when I envision transition for southwest Virginia, I would like to see us for once not just catching up - and not being 50 years behind - I want to see us 50 years beyond where we are right now.”

"The only thing that will thrive on this land is invasive species."

Owens wants to see renewable energy rise where the coal was once mined.

“How incredible would it be that here in central Appalachia where all the energy has come from coal, if we were on the cutting of edge of bringing in more sustainable energy like solar.”

Owens grew up in a house on a river and when the water rose, she says, it would come inside.

“So mom, for 20 years, would be out there with rubber boots and a garden hoe and she would move the rocks in the river so it would force the water to flow in a different way.”

And every time the water washed the rocks away, she says her mother got back out there and moved them again.

“So I thought if my mom can move a river with a garden hoe one rock at a time. I can reclaim this soil as well… 

Actually shale rock.

Because Mom would not be proud of me if she knew -- she raised us; if you see a problem and you want to do something that actually facilitates change in a good way, then do it because if you have the expectation someone else is going to do it, or a large company is going to come in and do it, and actually do what they say they’re going to do for you, you know, that’s not always true.”

In our next report, we’ll hear from people in Wise County who see their former mine land as a real asset for the kind of work they’re doing now.

Robbie Harris is based in Blacksburg, covering the New River Valley and southwestern Virginia.