Coal miners can’t catch much of a break these days. Regulations for the industry, especially those involved in surface coal mining, have always been strict, as they should be. The aftereffects of coal mining can involve high levels of acidity that when mixed with rain creates a runoff leading to vegetation devastation, and without proper protection, employees can be left with debilitating lung diseases. If a mining company does not take the proper precautions, the ensuing government fines and personal lawsuits will be more than sufficient to shut a coal mine down. The only way to operate in this business is to operate above reproach.
As it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the Dexter City, Ohio-based B&N Coal Inc. can say it has done just that. Just as much as it is a coal mine operator, B&N is also a reclamation and environmental control specialist.
“We have always done exceptional reclamation work, especially with our methods of drainage control that compliments the overall reclamation of mostly previously mined lands,” Vice President Roger Osborne explains. “Our re-mining of previously mined and un-reclaimed areas, along with the reestablishment of proper drainage controls, are the things for which our company has been noted. We were at the forefront of that and it’s something we are noted for. We have even won national awards for the company because of our re-mining efforts, and it points out the good we are doing.”
Taking Back the Mines
Osborne explains that many previously mined areas with a significant amount of recoverable resources remaining often go untouched because of the environmental issues left behind by a previous miner. The soils are highly eroded and the streams are filled with sediment and acid-laden water. Most companies do not even entertain the thought of re-mining those areas to recover any additional remaining coal reserves, since there is the potential of taking on the liability of the long-term treatment of the water from those previously mined areas, Osborne says. The only way to retrieve the resources is to reclaim the land with plans that include segmental or progressive reclamation, preservation of the topsoil, slope restoration of the high walls, slope stabilization and revegetation programs.
Because of its successful techniques, B&N has bid successfully as a contractor on mine reclamation programs throughout Ohio. All coal mine operators in the state pay a severance fee to a state program that handles contracts for mine reclamation. B&N contributes to this effort both through fees and through winning the contracts to perform the reclamation work.
Drawing the Line
Even though it is a leader in the field of reclamation, Osborne explains, that these days there is more and more pressure put on coal miners and coal fired plants. And in his view, many of the complaints and regulations springing up today are unfounded. “The market has dropped due to regulations,” he says. “There is a need for coal, but the plants are being closed down by administrations. The EPA in particular is closing down old coal fire plants and requiring new standards all the time to continue to fine tune the air regulations and make sure the existing and new plants can’t comply with the regulations.
“But with some of these regulations, they have never even proven that there is a need,” he continues. “When we are achieving 95 percent cleanup, how do you get to 100? Where do you draw the line?”
U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers of Kentucky feels the same way and recently opposed a fiscal year 2013 Interior and EPA appropriations bill that his office stated was “a job-killing regulation on the coal industry.” The amendment was defeated, but if passed it would have allowed the Office of Surface Mining to pose even stricter Stream Protection Rules and costly regulations that his office claims could have blocked as much as 43 percent of the country’s recoverable coal resources even though 42 percent of the country’s electricity supply is derived from coal. Osborne says measures such as these are common.
“There could be a stream, which is actually and erosional feature, that’s high up on the hill and they tell us that we have to provide water to this stream that on its own wouldn’t have water in the summertime,” he explains.
But for business to continue, B&N needs to get its permits and if constructing stream is what is required, constructing a stream is what it will do. “We try to come up with ways to construct the stream to look more natural,” Osborne says.
So far, the company has been able to endure the taxing regulations. It operates four mines, three are previously mined and unreclaimed lands and one is a virgin operation. But as permits for two of the mines approach expiration, Osborne says he is working hard to ensure the permits are issued. “I used to get a permit in 60 to 90 days through the [Ohio Division of Mineral Resources Management (DMRM)],” he recalls. “Now it goes to the DMRM, but also to the [Ohio] EPA and the [U.S. Army Corp of Engineers] and can take up to two years to acquire the additional information being requested and the additional processing time. It’s difficult to go from a short timeframe to two years.”
During the changes, Osborne has become an expert dancer, picking up the steps to pull off a successful performance. He builds relationships with the regulation officials, picking their brains to try and stay ahead of the new rules.
During this time, B&N has diversified itself with services such as performing drainage control and mitigating landslides during severe flooding. It also owns a few oil and gas wells on some of its properties as well as a slag-crushing operation, a limestone quarry and a sand and gravel operation. Still, coal is the company’s mainstay, and instead of regulators working against the coal industry, Osborne says they should work with it.
“They are closing coal plants but not building enough of other energy sources,” Osborne says. “As an engineer, I am all for developing other resources that are doable, and clean coal technology is something the government should be investing in.” EMI