Coal Industry Funds Hands-off Surface Mining Research at WVU

The State Journal
21 November 2011
By Pam Kasey

MORGANTOWN - A $500,000 grant to a team of West Virginia University researchers represents a new coal-industry approach to understanding the effects of surface coal mining.

"This is an entirely different strategy on the part of the industry," said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute  at the National Research Center for Coal and Energy.

The WVU team of researchers is part of the seven-university Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Sciences, or ARIES, administered the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. The team includes, in addition to Ziemkiewicz, Todd Petty, Mike Strager, Jeff Skousen and Louis McDonald, all from the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Vlad Kecojevic from the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

ARIES is funded by numerous industrial affiliate members, including, in the coal industry, major producers Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources as well local coal producer MEPCO and railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern.

New Approach

The shift ARIES represents in the coal industry is from an approach of secrecy to one of transparency.

"The industry has been on the defensive," Ziemkiewicz said. "They've been relatively reticent about results. They've done a lot of work and have a lot of internal reports, but they … never rise to the level of peer-reviewed, documented research. In the meantime, they see the research agenda being dominated by studies done half a world away that are used to make their lives more difficult."

With ARIES, he said, the funders laid out a set of broad priorities and left it to the consortium to assemble teams, conduct research and get published.

"The industry has absolutely no preconception as to whether the results will be beneficial or make their lives more difficult. But they still think it's better to get good information out that's relevant to their sites than to be subject to hearsay," Ziemkiewicz said. "That is a different approach to life than I've seen in my career here. It's some advanced thinking on the part of industry."


At the outset, the WVU team has a range of projects.

Skousen and McDonald will look at the weathering of mined rock to predict water quality impacts.

"As we learn more about the chemical properties of mined rock, we will better understand the duration and chemistry of discharges and help operators develop mine plans that minimize pollutant release to the environment," Skousen said. "Our research team has been developing technologies for managing mining impacts to aquatic resources for decades.

ARIES will help to carry technologies developed by his research team over decades to the entire Appalachian region, increasing the likelihood that progressive mining practices will be implemented by the industry and regulatory agencies, he said.

Also on the team, Kecojevic will study surface mining methods with a goal of developing an information system to help improve practices and coal recovery while minimizing environmental disturbances. Petty and Strager will evaluate watershed-scale effects of water quality changes.

Ziemkiewicz, who leads the team, already has submitted a paper on the controversial issue of selenium, research he conducted before the ARIES funding but wants to have considered as part of the ARIES database.

"What we're looking at is how fast selenium weathers from rocks, how high the concentration gets and how long it lasts before it's gone," he said.

"We're seeing the ‘cookout,' or attenuation, rate getting below the regulatory limit of 5 micrograms per liter within 20 to 25 years," he said — a period he considered short compared with that of some pollutants, such as sulfur, which last "forever."

Monitoring of the Mud River, a tributary to the Guyandotte River in southern West Virginia, has shown no adverse effect of selenium on the fishery, he said — a finding that conflicts with past research in the same waterway.

"We're finding that the mutation rates are well below 10 percent, which is normally considered to be the background mutation rate for fish," Ziemkiewicz said.


ARIES offers an unaccustomed and welcome freedom and focus to researchers, he said.

"Everyone who does research has this whole backlog of things they would really like to study if someone just gave them money, what I would almost call curiosity-oriented research," Ziemkiewicz said. "What happens in reality is, we have to wait for a Request for Proposals to come popping out of some government agency — and it may not really quite fit what we want to do."

The ARIES funding allows the researchers to pursue the questions they've been most curious about, within a broadly defined program.

Further, because the funding is made available to a small consortium of universities, researchers aren't competing with "the entire world" for a relatively limited pool of monies, Ziemkiewicz said. Researchers studying surface mining near Appalachian streams don't have to somehow make a better case for their work than those studying nutrients related to soybean farming in a river in Iowa.

Given that freedom, Ziemkiewicz wants to advance his research on selenium by gathering data related to other mines and other coal seams. He wants to study more closely the effects of selenium on fish. And he wants to broaden the same type of work to other water quality parameters, including sulfate, dissolved solids and electrical conductivity.

Research he hopes to see from other WVU ARIES studies includes refining the ability to model individual watersheds so that system stressors can be manipulated to figure out what truly needs to be done to maintain fishery health.

"That's what the Clean Water Act really wants you to do," he said.

Such targeted research goes directly to the questions policymakers need answers to, giving them a better dataset to work with, Ziemkiewicz said of the program.

He expects to see five years of funding from ARIES.

The ARIES initiative is composed of, in addition to WVU and Virginia Tech, the University of Kentucky, Ohio State University, the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Pennsylvania.