What’s missing in Virginia’s efforts to develop former surface mines

By: - October 1, 2021 12:01 am

The Looney Ridge mine in Wise County, near the Kentucky border. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

By Wally Smith

Sarah Vogelsong’s Sept. 20 piece, “Can Southwest Virginia remake itself as a laboratory for renewables?” detailed a positive step forward in the Southwest Virginia coalfields’ transition towards a diversified energy economy. However, it was concerning to see several references made throughout the article referring to the region’s former minelands as consequence-free zones for industrial use. One line, for example, lauded less “local opposition” to land disturbance as a plus for industrial-scale projects in the coalfields, while several quotes from officials echoed a longstanding argument that former surface mines are merely disturbed lands that have little value other than in being repurposed and reused.

If only things were that simple.

At the same time the article went live, several college students and I were processing images from a game camera study cataloging wildlife diversity on one former surface mine in Wise County – a 300-acre site that has been considered for possible mineland development projects in recent years. Rather than showing a barren landscape, the images revealed a disturbed yet recovering site teeming with life. A black bear sidled by the camera in one image, while a resident bobcat prowled thick undergrowth for a meal in another. A muskrat wandered up from a nearby retention pond to forage in one series of images, only to disappear and return moments later with its litter of young in tow. 

Many other former surface mines across Southwest Virginia echo the surprisingly diverse communities of wildlife seen on our study site in Wise County. Elk have repopulated several regional mines, while others are being used to reintroduce culturally-important, native Appalachian hardwoods like the American Chestnut that we lost from the region long ago. Tucked away into a set of rock outcrops behind one of those cameras on our Wise County mine is even a population of green salamanders — a rare species currently undergoing review for possible Endangered Species Act listing and hanging on deep within the heart of the mine

To view places like these as empty ecological voids with little value other than as footprints for industrial-scale economic development is to perpetuate the widespread misperception of the Southwest Virginia coalfields as the commonwealth’s disposable landscape. In reality, many of the region’s mines have not just been recolonized by native wildlife species but are thriving under a host of non-industrial uses, from sites producing award-winning wines for local entrepreneurs to those serving as outdoor classrooms for rural schools. Other local mines face serious environmental liabilities but possess similar potential with the right investment in thoughtful restoration strategies.

Even those living outside of the coalfields should be concerned about how we use and develop the region’s former surface mines, as scientific studies have highlighted the Virginia coalfields as a critical “climate corridor” for wildlife seeking to migrate northward in response to ongoing and future climate change. The ecological health and development patterns occurring on and around Virginia’s 100,000 mined acres – an area roughly half the size of Shenandoah National Park – will therefore be key for the long-term health of wildlife species across the East.

To be clear, repurposing former minelands for projects like renewable energy development is a smart move and is preferable in most locations to clearing nearby intact forests without a history of disturbance. However, we must take care to consider the impacts of those and other industrial uses for former mines and not fall into the trap of thinking that they can be excluded from sustainability considerations simply because of which corner of the commonwealth they’re found in or their past histories of disturbance. 

How can we design industrial-scale projects to not just maximize economic gain but also best benefit the native wildlife species and ecosystems that have recolonized our former mines? Beyond thinking about jobs and local tax revenues, are there environmental justice considerations involving such projects for the many residents of low-income communities that often surround the region’s former mines? What role do those underrepresented Virginians’ voices have in planning where and how we site mineland development projects in their communities? These are questions that few economic officials, media outlets or even the environmental organizations lobbying to develop Virginia’s former minelands seem to be seriously grappling with.

Just as we wouldn’t exclude disturbed agricultural lands or suburban areas from our long-term environmental planning for special places like the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we should also take care to not exclude Virginia’s former minelands from consideration in our environmental planning for the coalfields. Now – not several decades down the road when we’ve found ourselves facing new and expensive liabilities on mined lands – is the time for the Commonwealth to have a serious, proactive, and public conversation about what sustainable regional planning for mineland reuse projects looks like. 

Wally Smith is an associate professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise researching wildlife conservation on former minelands across the Virginia coalfields. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of any other institutions or organizations.

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