Coalfields to Chestnuts: Innovative Reclamation

  • Tiny chestnut trees plants on a former coalfield in southwest Virginia. Photo: Jonna McKone

April 4, 2014
By Jonna McKone

Areas of Appalachia have been producing coal for over a century. For many of those years, little attention was paid to the safety or environmental costs. But then one night in 1972, something happened: a slurry pond of water and crushed coal burst in Logan County, W.Va., releasing 132 million gallons of thick, black water onto residents and their homes below, killing 125 people. 

"And I think that sort of galvanized public opinion and they said, 'Enough.' " says Al Whitehouse, who works in the Office of Surface Mining. 

In 1977, the U.S. Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which forced coal companies to fund the cleanup of abandoned mines and restore active mine sites.

Most planted grasses and shrubs to keep soil in place. In the late nineties, former coal miner Dave Fisher worked on many of these reclamations, as an employee for his father's hydro-seeding company. 

"It is effective as far as keeping some of the soil in place but it don’t benefit the soil any," Fisher says. "It don’t benefit any of the wildlife. It don’t benefit anything."

He says that, "At one time, people made their living collecting ginseng and yellow root and blood root. And none one of that is ever put back on the mined land. Very seldom is any the hardwood put back."

But that's changing.

Nathan Hall reforests active and former coal sites throughout central Appalachia, as well as a few sites in Pennsylvania and Ohio, with a nonprofit called Green Forests Work.

"There’s only a few counties in Virginia that are really heavily coal-producing counties and Dickinson is definitely one of them," he says.

Joined by Mike French, of the American Chestnut Foundation, Hall shows off the Freddy Mullins reforestation site in Dickinson County, Virginia. To get there, they curve around a few hairpin and switchback turns, pass a cluster of beehives and a few houses, eventually stopping just past a private residence surrounded by acres of fescue grass. Many former mining sites are a lot like this one—kind of hard to get to and there aren’t clear roads or uses for the area. There’s a few mountains in the distance. And a flat field that looks barren from afar.

A hundred years ago, chestnut trees spanned this whole area. But starting around the turn of century most were lost to a persistent blight.

French, Hall and a few other organizations in the region think turning former coal sites into productive forests could be a source of economic growth for the region.

"The old-timers used to say that when the chestnuts were in bloom in June and July, it looked like the ridge tops were covered with snow because of all the chestnut flowers," French says. "Well, when you look at the surface mines today that’s where most of them are, is up high where chestnuts were formerly dominant."

The American Chestnut Foundation has a huge research farm in Meadowview, Va., where they have been working to breed a tree that would be potentially blight-resistant.

He checks out a few of the planted chestnuts.  

"Isn’t it beautiful?" French asks. "It’s almost 2 feet tall and only three months old. What do you think? 

"And that’s from seed?" Hall asks. "Yeah, that's nice." 

With the help of volunteers, these grant-funded plantings have occurred at 12 reclaimed mines.