The life of a surface coal mine is well-defined: removing the rocks and soil, digging for coal and putting the land back to its natural state. The caretakers entrusted with that lifecycle find common ground in their love of the land.
Three years ago, first-year engineering intern Danielle Taran helped develop the reclamation plan for the 1,700-acre C Area mining pit at Luminant’s Big Brown Mine near Fairfield.
“I’ve always liked playing in the dirt and been the outdoorsy type, so out at the mine site I feel at home,” Taran, now a senior at the University of Arizona, says. “I was given the topography of the land and the design to get it back to the original contour, and my job was to figure out where we needed to cut and fill and determine which equipment to use. I figured out the timeline based on how much the equipment could move, along with the budget.”
Taran quickly developed a reputation as an up-and-comer and caught the attention of Arizona Engineer Magazine, which recently detailed the three Luminant internships that have “zig-zagged her halfway across Texas and stepped her through the life of a mine.”
“When I came back the second summer, the reclamation timeline had changed a bit due to weather but everything else was on track,” Taran explained recently from Kosse Mine where she’s spending her third-year internship with the crews actually mining the coal. “It was fun to see the land put back to where it was supposed to be according to the maps that I had looked at my first summer. It makes me feel like I am doing something that matters.”
Returning an area the size of more than 650 football fields to its original contours, accommodating vegetation, wildlife and the creek that runs across the land, is not easy. But it is important, especially to Environmental Specialist John Kent, who grew up here and worked with Danielle on the initial plans. He is rooted in this land, just as the native grasses and trees he helps plant in the red dirt that will cap the area after it’s filled with the soil that Danielle carefully planned.
“It’s important for the environment and the people here that we don’t just walk away from the land we mine, but have a goal to make it better than it was before,” he says.
Kent went to work for Luminant at a young age because he loved being outdoors taking care of the land. He saw firsthand the B Mining Area transformed from a 1.6-mile-long mining pit in 2002 into a 112 surface-acre lake that today provides a rare opportunity for genetic research of largemouth bass. In fact, he was in charge of planting that area, which is due to be released from reclamation status this year.
In the C Area where the final pit was about five miles long and about four miles of Bear Creek was temporarily re-routed, the natural contour is slowly re-emerging. The bulk of the dirt work will be complete later this year, Kent says. Temporary grasses will be planted this fall to hold the soil in place over the winter, along with trees lining the creek bed and flat lands. The four-foot-deep red dirt cap will be finished in mid-2015 with permanent grasses to follow and mixed hardwood trees to be planted in winter 2015.
Water is always a top concern. In C Area, crews will install forested wetlands, shaping the land without much slope to minimize runoff and hold water, especially during the state’s dry, hot summers. Aquatic plants and trees like bald cypress, in addition to native grasses and mixed hardwood trees, help provide habitat for many different species of fish and wildlife.
“Water resources are a huge benefit of our reclaimed land,” Kent says. “More than 6 percent of additional water resources are placed back into reclaimed land vs. what was originally in the area.”
Ultimately, it’s the natural born love of the land that figures so prominently in our past and our future that led Luminant to reclaim mined land before the law required it and continue to set the national standard today.
“Within just a couple short years after reclamation it is virtually impossible to tell that the land was once a lignite mine,” Kent says. “The legacy of our work will carry on for a lifetime.”