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Abandoned Ohio coal mines leave holes in the landscape and the economy. A government program aims to fill them

A restored wetland with tall grasses and a wooden bridge on a sunny November day
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
The Friendship Park Highwall Reclamation Project restored thousands of feet of an abandoned surface coal mine in Jefferson County. It's part of a broader, federal effort to find new purposes for the land.

The newest recreational area of Friendship Park in eastern Ohio’s Jefferson County is situated between acres of rolling farmland and a big lake.

The sloping hill there has just been revegetated with native plants, two different types of restored wetlands, pollinator plots, even a bat roost.

The oasis is a far cry from how the land looked just a few years ago.

An abandoned surface mine, it featured thousands of feet of cliff-like highwalls, unstable spoil piles and acres of invasive plants.

But a concerted federal effort is working to restore land like this, and find new productive purposes for it.

“If we give the earth the proper amount of care, Mother Nature will come back,” said Jeffrey Clarke, an environmental specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources who helped create the restored oasis. “This is a testament to that.”

Ohio’s coal mining past

Over the past two centuries, more than 3.6 billion tons of coal have been mined from Ohio.

The first 100 tons of coal ever produced in the state were from Jefferson County in 1800. Since then, the activity not only drove the local economy there, it literally shaped the landscape.

Abandoned coal mines there now sit as wastelands, some with dangerous cliffs and unstable ground.

Just a short walk away from the Friendship Park Highwall Reclamation Project, Clarke points out one of those areas.

“This is actually the spoil pile,” he said. “You just think that right now we're walking up a hill, but this is all material that was originally overtop of the coal.”

Trees grow on top of a steep, rocky cliff
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
An unreclaimed highwall in Friendship Park in Jefferson County

Basically, in order to get to that coal, miners dug it up and put all the dirt that was on top of it in a big pile. Then they took out the seam of valuable coal … and left.

In their wake, they sometimes left steep highwalls where they excavated coal and dangerous impoundments where they stored coal waste. The leftover landscape wasn’t just disruptive to the natural environment, it was unsafe for people to be around too.

“I have to urge caution as we walk over to the edge of this spoil pile,” Clarke warned as he approached a remnant highwall. “Now you have a cliff, and you can see the trees as they're falling off. You can see the roots that are still dangling.”

Restoring abandoned mine land

There are hundreds of thousands of acres of abandoned coal mine land across the state.

The Ohio Division of Mineral Resources Management estimates between 350,000 and 450,000 acres need some degree of reclamation, which would come at an estimated cost of $528 million.

If an abandoned mine is hazardous, the ODNR steps in to mitigate the danger. But it typically doesn’t rehabilitate the land with pollinator plots or reconstructed wetlands.

A man in a black jacket stands at the base of a bat roost. It looks like a telephone poll
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Jeffrey Clarke stands at the foot of a bat roost. It was recently installed as part of the Friendship Park Highwall Reclamation Project.

The newly restored portion of Friendship Park only got that special treatment because it’s part of the Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization (AMLER) Program, a unique federal program to reclaim historic mine lands across six Appalachian states and three tribal nations.

Its purpose is to repair the natural — and the economic — landscape of an area. Both were marred by the decline of the state’s coal industry.

“It really marries economic development with reclamation,” said Benny McCament, chief of Ohio’s Division of Mineral Resources Management. “It’s improving communities in areas that have been hit hard by historic coal losses, basically loss of jobs, loss of economy.”

Since 2017, the division has completed 32 of these federally-funded projects in Ohio, including a trailhead for a mountain biking trail system in the village of Chauncey in Athens County and a segment of the Moonville Rail Trail in the Zaleski State Forest.

McCament says communities all over eastern Ohio would love to fully transform abandoned mine lands into beautiful destinations like the revegetated sloping hills of Friendship Park.

But currently, there’s not enough money to go around.

“We had 13 applications for over $30 million and we have $10 million to award this time,” McCament said.

For communities that do receive the federal funds, the money is meant to be an investment.

Organizers of the Friendship Park Highwall Reclamation Project think it’ll pay off. When it opens to the public this spring, they hope the long disused land will act as an economic driver for the area, for the first time since it was a coal mine.

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.