By Kimberly Mazza
GLENROCK – About 17 years ago an article appeared in the Douglas Budget entitled “After 50 years of powering generators, Glenrock Coal Mine restored to original beauty”. The article outlined the history of the Dave Johnston Mine (DJ Mine) – its official name – and its exemplary reclamation that was located about 20 miles northwest of Glenrock.
The Mine’s story is fascinating, but what makes it unique is the effort and success of the Mine receiving the first post Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977 official closure and Termination of Jurisdiction from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) in the state.
According to Kyle Wendtland, DEQ’s Land Quality Division Administrator, it was a maturing event of the coal program that should be recognized. “The DJ Mine accomplished ‘First Milestones’ on many levels.”
- The Mine was the first complete mine closure to receive Termination of Jurisdiction (TOJ) and be released from the Wyoming Coal Program and SMCRA’s requirements.
- It became the first Mine for large scale sagebrush reclamation from seed – a very critical piece of reclamation in Wyoming as the state is home to the iconic sage grouse and many other sagebrush dependent species. Sagebrush is therefore considered a critical vegetation habitat component.
- Many of the reclamation procedures and specialized equipment used were developed by Pacific Power’s lead reclamation scientist, Chet Skillbred, and are viewed as first-in-the-industry technology advancements and continue to be used by the mineral extraction industry today across Wyoming.
- The reclamation won multiple state and federal awards.
- After its closure the land still produces energy through the Glenrock and Rolling Hills wind farm.
The DJ Mine began producing coal in 1958 to power the Dave Johnston Power Plant. Owned and operated by Pacific Power, the Mine produced over a hundred million tons of coal during the 42 years it operated. During that timeframe, 4,732 acres of short-grass prairie lands were disturbed.
Fortunately, Pacific Power had the foresight to hire someone educated in agriculture and reclamation to not only work on the permit that would now need to meet the new SMCRA standards that were passed in 1977, and the new resulting Wyoming regulatory requirements, but ensure reclamation was being done accordingly.
Chet Skilbred, who was fresh out of college having obtained a Biology degree with minors in Chemistry and Mathematics and a Masters in Range Science, was working at Montana State University doing research in reclamation. He recalled seeing an ad in the Billings gazette that said Pacific Power was looking for a vegetation specialist for their mines. He applied and the rest is history – a long history of a 36-year career doing reclamation work for the DJ Mine.
“I basically managed the reclamation through the whole life of the Mine, from when SMRCA was initiated to the closing of the Mine” he said.
Chet was first located in Portland, Oregon to work on several of the company’s mines and would fly to Wyoming every week. After 1.5 years, Pacific Power asked him to select a mine, and his choice was the DJ Mine, since he had worked on its permit. He reflected on how the permitting process changed over the years.
“The first permit for the DJ Mine was only two pages long and basically described where the Mine was located. The permit grew to 50 pages when Wyoming passed the Environmental Quality Act in 1973. When the federal SMCRA came into effect and Wyoming received regulatory primacy, our permit grew to 24, four-inch binders.”
According to Chet, Pacific Power was a conscientious operator and had the foresight to do reclamation work to the disturbed lands starting in 1965. However, he said that there was still a great deal of detail that needed to be done to be compliant with the new requirements.
Chet explained that the soils in that area are sandy, and the climate can be characterized as semiarid with dry winters and hot summers. And of course, the wind blows constantly “with a velocity of 14.7 miles per hour” to be exact. These factors and an annual precipitation average of 10.4 inches per year, presented significant reclamation and re-vegetation challenges that Chet set out to overcome.
From Chet’s writings on the area, vegetation is typical of the Northern Great Plains ecosystem complex. Big sagebrush, western wheatgrass, needlegrasses, blue grama, prairie junegrass and western yarrow are common species associated with the sagebrush shrubland and grassland community mosaics found on undisturbed Mine land in this regional area.
“Greater sage grouse and other sagebrush-dependent wildlife species require sagebrush-dominated plant communities for their survival. Similarly, species such as mule deer and pronghorn depend heavily on these restored, big sagebrush plant communities for their habitat.” stated Chet.
From the 80’s to 1993 Chet identified advanced reclamation practices that would reestablish sagebrush to its original pre-mining density. He traveled to many mines in other states researching their reclamation techniques for warm season species and sagebrush enhancing his understanding of potential reclamation practices.
By 1993, Chet had developed successful reclamation techniques to reclaim most of the grass species to a pre-mining state, and during the next five years, he focused on applications more specific to sagebrush while refining grass establishment processes. “Sagebrush is a difficult plant to grow. Fortunately, Pacific Power allowed me to experiment all through the life of the Mine.”
Chet’s persistence paid off, and he became very successful in establishing sagebrush from seed. Today, Chet is considered the leading expert and father of many reclamation practices employed to successfully establish sagebrush from seed. Chet’s pioneering work on seed source quality, plant phenology, and equipment modifications can been seen throughout the modern reclamation practices employed today.
With his attention to detail and his ability to think outside the box of traditional reclamation approaches, Chet advised crews, staff, engineers, and leadership on reclamation. “I went to every Pacific Power mine to assist and advise with their reclamation programs. Pacific Power also sent staff from their other mines to see how we were managing our reclamation. The DJ Mine was Pacific Power’s poster child or the ‘Cadillac Mine’.”
For forty-two (42) years between 1958 and 2000 the DJ Mine produced approximately one hundred and four million (104,000,000) tons of coal. “Even though the Mine still had more than 100,000,000 tons of coal untapped, at that time it became too costly to mine. Pacific Power could buy the coal elsewhere and ship it to the plant cheaper,” noted Chet.
In 1998 PacifiCorp announced closure of the Mine and initiated final reclamation operations with the last coal shipped from the Mine in October of 2000.
According to Chet, when the Mine closed, approximately 1,665 acres of the 4,798-acre total mining disturbance had been reclaimed due to Pacific Power’s earlier efforts. The remaining 3,133 acres were reclaimed from November of 2000 through November of 2005.
“During those last five years, there was a drought which forced us to do things differently,” said Chet. We planted sagebrush at night instead of during the heat of the day which helped the roots establish. “There were two female equipment operators,” he reflected, “that would go out and plant during the night. They did most of the planting.”
Another unusual approach was utilizing an invasive weed. Typically, reclamation standards guard against them. “We were permitted to allow Russian Thistle to grow even though it is an invasive weed. It helped with shade for the sagebrush seedlings and provided those seedlings with predation protection. Once the sagebrush and grass were established it took over and pushed out the thistle.”
Another positive outcome of the reclamation planning process was the supply of wildlife water. Chet noted that prior to mining, there were no surface springs present within the Mine’s permit area. However, the small weeps from the Mine’s high walls were used to create six post-mining water resources (springs). Constructed between 2001 and 2004, these springs have continued to produce water for the Mine’s restored ecosystem.
Reclamation implies that the mine site will be habitable to organisms in approximately the same composition and density as was present before the land was disturbed according to Chet. The restored ecosystems on the Mine met the vegetation habitat needs to support a diversity of wildlife species for the long term.
“The common occurrence of strutting, nesting and brood rearing greater sage grouse, a threatened species, suggests that important habitat characteristics for this sensitive species are present in the Mine’s restored sagebrush-grassland ecosystem. Mule deer, antelope, hawks, and numerous other organisms that are largely sagebrush dependent are abundant on the former Mine.”
“The common occurrence of strutting, nesting and brood rearing greater sage grouse, a threatened species, suggests that important habitat characteristics for this sensitive species are present in the Mine’s restored sagebrush-grassland ecosystem.”
By 2005 the reclamation operations were completed, and all mining disturbed lands (4,798 acres) were reclaimed back to their approved land use.
The DJ Mine met the ten standards that are required to relinquish its permit and to have the $80 million bond released. “A termination of jurisdiction is awarded only when a mine is fully reclaimed – including seeding of native plant populations – and remains in good grazing condition for 10 years,” Wendtland said. “This is a significant regulatory achievement.”
It was quite a milestone and the efforts won numerous state and federal awards.
In 2010 and 2012, the DJ Mine won the Industry Wildlife Stewardship Award. The award honors companies whose primary mission is not wildlife-related and who make a positive impact through development/improvement for the benefit of fish, wildlife, or habitat.
In 2001, the DJ Mine won the Excellence in Surface Mining and Reclamation National Award. The National awards recognize achievement in a specific aspect of reclamation or for overall performance in meeting goals of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.
In 2001 and 2012 the Mine won the Western Regional Winner for the Excellence in Surface Coal Mining Reclamation Award from the US Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. The award is given to those coal mining companies that achieve exemplary coal mine reclamation in the nation. Winners have demonstrated a commitment to sound mining practices and effective reclamation plans and practices that enhanced beneficial post-mining use of the land.
The DJ Mine received the DEQ State of Wyoming Reclamation Award that same year. According to the DEQ in a press release regarding the award, the DJ Mine was very deserving. “The Mine and their lead reclamation scientist, Chet Skilbred has a history of regularly ‘going-the-extra-mile’ to solve technical restoration challenges; particularly related to the development of specific methodologies for reestablishment of native shrub species and the installation of innovative reclamation elements that enhance wildlife habitat.”
However, this area that was once home to the DJ Mine was not finished producing energy. Utilizing existing mining intra-structure, baseline mining data and 30 years of on-site meteorological monitoring data, PacifiCorp constructed 158-unit wind turbines to generate a combined 237 mega-watts of electrical energy on the private lands where the Mine once existed. This transition was only achievable due to the simplified land ownership of the proposed development area as well as the private ownership of the needed power transmission corridor. PacifiCorp was able to capitalize on a very unique set of circumstances.
Completed in 2008, production of electricity for customers began in 2008 and 2009.
During a tour of the wind farm, Rocky Mountain Power’s CEO stated that though the reclamation efforts had taken place over a period of many years, the results are a legacy of electricity production for many more years into the future.
“When I started working at the DJ Mine, there were 230 employees,” Chet reflected. “By the end of the reclamation period, there was only one employee left – me. I did the last plantings, took care of the maintenance of the facilities, and ran the tractors,” he said.
“I put myself through college running heavy equipment. I guess that worked out well for me…”
And for the DJ Mine.
Many thanks to Chet Skilbred, who graciously provided time and information to help make this article happen. All photos were provided by Chet.