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Vigo Coal stripper pitVigo Coal Company


Coal is harmful to the environment in many ways, from mining to burning. The burning of coal creates air pollution. Its mining can wreak havoc on the land, particularly surface or “strip” mining. It destroys animal habitats, ecosystems and arable lands. Many times, mining companies will leave stripper pits unfilled, creating dangerous and barren areas that can contribute to erosion.

Vigo Coal Company, owned by Koester Companies, is attempting to reduce some of this damage. They are nationally renowned for the reclamation work done on their former mining lands. According to Mr. John Harman, Vice President of Vigo Coal, the company has made sincere efforts to reduce the damage that mining can do and recreate the habitats that are being lost at the Cyprus Creek Mine Area in Warrick County, southwestern Indiana.

overview of Cyprus Creek Mine

Overview of the Cyprus Creek Mine, with coal pile and reclaimed farm in the distance.

Vigo’s efforts begin with the methods they use to mine. Strip mining is the most effective way to remove large, flat deposits of coal. Benching is the process of removing the A and B horizons, which are different types of soils. A is the highest grade of tillable soil, and B is lower. The A and B soils are moved to an area away from the pit and gently stacked. No heavy equipment is allowed on the piles to avoid compaction, which can restrict plant root access. The area is then blasted and the other materials, referred to as spoils, are removed.

The company uses Global Positioning Systems on its equipment to determine the exact size of the area that needs to be drilled and blasted. This creates straight highwalls in rocky areas and straight, GPS measured walls are safer than approximated ones. Straight highwalls reduce rock falls and allow heavy equipment to be placed close to the wall without fear of damage to it or its operator. GPS is also used in grading the soils and rocks away from the coal vein. The precise location of the coal layer is in the computer system, and a bulldozer operator knows where and how high or low to dig. This precision eliminates waste and dilution in the coal.

The next step is to remove the coal, which is also done using GPS. The coal from Cyprus Creek is sold raw in a minus two-inch size. The wastes from mining, mostly fly ash, are placed in the spoils pile to avoid contact with the water table. Vigo constantly tests the ground water for purity.

After mining is completed, Vigo works equally hard to re-establish the lands that it has disturbed.

Ecosystems are created through hundreds, even thousands of years of natural processes, and as a result are very delicate. A disturbed habitat can never be fully restored to its original condition. Nonetheless, the restoration of habitat is more desirable than leaving it useless for both humans and wildlife. Vigo makes efforts to restore the land it mines to its previous condition. The land is under a five-year bond at approximately $10,000 an acre, which means that if the land cannot be properly used after mining, Vigo will pay $10,000 per acre to the landowner. The types and amounts of soils are carefully measured before mining begins, and are replaced in those exact proportions after it is finished. Topography is frequently returned to its original state as well.

Farmland that is to be mined is measured for productivity by bushels per acre prior to any disturbance. After the land is mined and reclaimed, Vigo must farm the land and return similar production rates for at least three years. There are times when the land is cultivated for the full length of the bond in order to be certain of the productivity rates. Vigo is constantly testing for the best way to reclaim arable lands, and for which method of replacing soils gives the best output.

shallow wetlands
Shallow area of wetlands at Cyprus Creek.

In other areas, the land is restored to its natural state, such as wetlands or forest. The topography of the land is measured and recorded using GPS for use in replacing the soils. The native species of trees are recorded and used in replanting a forested area. A particular number of trees per acre must be recorded for the period of the bond in order for the land to be considered reclaimed. Wetlands are an expensive venture to run into when mining. They must be replaced at a higher ratio than other habitats, meaning that a larger area must be returned to wetlands than was found.

The largest area of wetlands at Cyprus Creek was reclaimed in the spring of 2002 from a previous mining operation run by another company. The “Big E” near Boonville in Warrick County consisted of four abandoned stripper pits that formed a letter “E” shape. These pits controlled flooding from nearby Cyprus Creek by channeling all of the storm water away from the town. Sometime after the pits were abandoned, a separate company
deep wetlands

Deep area of wetlands with rocks in shallow area.

filled in a section of the “E” and the ensuing flooding became a serious problem in Boonville. Vigo requested permission from the landowner to turn the area into a wetlands and alleviate the flooding. They created an 80-foot deep well with shallower areas surrounding it. Cyprus Creek now has a much larger area to empty into. The outflow of water is controlled by a culvert, which also ensures that there will always be water for wildlife. The hope is that the deeper sections will provide habitat for fish and the shallower waters will accommodate birds and shallow water plants. Native species of plant and wildflower have been planted, and water-loving birds such as sandhill cranes and mallards are moving in. Vigo’s wetlands created a win-win situation for the people of Warrick County, as flooding has been allayed and they now have an area to view wildlife.

Just down the road from the Cyprus Creek operation is Squaw Creek Mining Area. At this mine, there are deep lakes of water left from previous mining activities in the 1950s. The lakes are filled with slurry, or a mixture of water and particles of coal that were too small to recover, which are often called coal fines. Vigo has developed several different methods of recovering fines such as these from water. The water pumped back into the lakes is purer than when it was removed, and allows wildlife to again flourish there.

Vigo always has new and innovative ideas for making mining more friendly to both the environment and landowners. They have received three state awards and two national awards for their reclamation work in different areas of the country. However, they have not received any recognition from private environmental organizations. The area of wetlands near Boonville will most likely be brought up for a state award in the spring of 2003.

Though coal continues to be environmentally problematic in many ways, Vigo Coal is making efforts to reduce the damage they leave behind.



Many thanks are extended to Ray Smith, owner and proprietor of RJSmith Controls Systems of Boonville, Indiana, for his information and introduction of the author to Mr. Harman of Vigo Coal.