The Appalachian Coal Belt Region spans several states including Alabama, Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Together, these states accounted for approximately 35% of the coal produced in the United States for 2002 (i.e. 396 million short tons). Between 1998 and 2002, nearly 1,600 surface mining permits were issued for over 300,000 acres in the Appalachian Coal Belt Region. Land disturbance is an inevitable component of surface mining activities, but regulations set forth by the Office of Surface Mining strive to reduce these impacts. One commonly employed temporary method of reducing sediment inputs to waterways or non-permitted areas is through sediment ponds. For the Appalachian Coal Belt Region, the location of these sediment ponds is often in close proximity to headwater streams. Research indicates that between 60 to 80% of the cumulative channel length in mountainous areas, such as the Appalachian Coal Belt Region, is comprised of headwater streams. Many researchers view headwater streams as vital ecosystem components.
Standard mining practices, with regards to sediment pond removal, typically consist of four main steps: 1) remove top layer of sediment from the basin, 2) remove or breach the embankment, 3) relocate sediment to a nearby area and stabilize, and 4) allow the stream to define its own path. Several difficulties arise when attempting to remove sediment ponds, as mining operators must contend with base flow contributions, saturated soils within the sediment basins, large amounts of deposited in-stream sediments, and logistical and economic challenges associated with equipment use in large, remote sediment basins. Under worst-case conditions, mining operators will breach the embankment and allow the stream to cut its own path - a technique that results in a massive influx of sediment to downstream locations. Often, proper consideration is not given to restoring headwater streams so that they maintain proper hydraulic and biologic functions. These removal techniques contradict the designed function of sediment ponds, which is to substantially reduce sediment loads to downstream areas.
Because of this undesirable situation, a pilot scale study has been developed to better assess current mining practices related to sediment pond removal and to develop cost-efficient and effective techniques for restoring headwater streams in the Appalachian Coal Belt Region.
The objectives of this pilot study are to:
- Monitor and document down-gradient sediment concentrations associated with modified/improved sediment pond removal techniques and the implementation of Natural Channel Design techniques.
- Re-establish high-value hardwood trees to provide shading, organic matter, streambank stability, and habitat as part of the restoration design.
- Document the economic factors associated with these new methods for sediment pond removal and headwater stream restoration.