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Examining the reclamation plan as work continues in the background are, from left, Haskell County Commissioner Kenny Short, Sen. Richard Lerblance, Conservation Commissioner Virginia Kidd, landowners Wayne Warren and Bob Byrum, and Conservation Commission Executive Director Mike Thralls.

Link to more Club Lake West Project tour photos

Club Lake West Project:
Reclaiming Seventy Acres of Abandoned Mine Land

State Senator Richard Lerblance and state and national conservation leaders attended a tour of a reclamation project in Haskell County on Wednesday morning, Dec. 14. National Association of Conservation Districts President Bill Wilson, Oklahoma Conservation Commissioner Virginia Kidd and Executive Director Mike Thralls, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service State Conservationist Darrel Dominick and Haskell County Commissioner Kenny Short toured the Club Lake West Reclamation Project. Wilson is also a member of the board of directors of the Haskell County Conservation District.

Thirty-three acres of abandoned coal mine land, less than a mile from the town of McCurtain in Haskell County, has not only been an eyesore on the landscape, but has been a dangerous area. Concerns about the hazard to public safety has put this site as a high priority for reclamation.

“The area known as the Club Lake West Project consists of old spoil piles, highwalls, and deep water pits. It is not only a dangerous place, but it has also become a dumping ground for household waste and rubbish of all kinds,” said Conservation Commissioner Virginia Kidd. “State Highway 26 is adjacent to the site and a county road runs through the property; there is a concern that a vehicle could run off one of these highwalls.”

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From left are Commissioner Virginia Kidd, Sen. Richard Lerblance, NACD President Bill Wilson and USDA Natural Resources Service State Conservationist Darrel Dominick.

A reclamation project on the area began in October and completion is scheduled for February 2006. It includes filling strip pits to eliminate 3,400 feet of dangerous high walls and two hazardous water bodies and reclaim 10 acres of residential waste. The project is being funded through the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) Program, administered by the Conservation Commission, and will cost approximately $565,000. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service contributed $58,000 to that amount to help with the design of the project.

“The pits will be back-filled against the highwalls using the old spoil materials,” said Mike Kastl, AML program director. “The disturbed areas will be graded and shaped to conform with adjacent topography and will be planted to grass.” Because the county road had to be relocated, 1.7 acres of wetlands were affected by the project and 5.7 acres of new wetlands will be created to mitigate that loss. The McCurtain FFA and 4-H Chapters in coordination with the Haskell County Conservation District are helping to plant 2,000 trees and five acres of grass plantings for the newly created wetland, along with the introduction of 300 water plants (Button bush, Marsh Hibiscus, soft stem rush, and soft stem bulrush).

The Conservation Commission has worked closely with the landowners Bob Byrum and Wayne Warren and the Haskell County Conservation District in planning and carrying out the project.

“Projects like this not only help in the care of our natural resources, but also benefit the local economy,” Sen. Richard Lerblance said.

“Haskell County Conservation District is pleased to be partnering with the Conservation Commission on this project,” said Bill Wilson, Haskell County Conservation District director and National Association of Conservation Districts president. “This site has been a top priority for reclamation work for our board for some time,” he added.( Link to remarks delivered by Bill Wilson, NACD President and Haskell County Conservation District board member)

This AML project is one of 140 completed in the past 24 years. Congress authorized the reclamation program in August 1977, when they passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The act established a reclamation tax of $.35 per ton on active surface-mined coal, and $.15 per ton on underground coal mining. The money collected is used for reclamation of abandoned coal mining areas. Oklahoma has over 32,000 acres of abandoned surface coal mines and another 40,000 acres of underground coal mines in a 16-county area of eastern Oklahoma. Hazards from these areas range from dangerous high walls and water bodies to open mine shafts, acid mine drainage, and dilapidated mine structures. Numerous deaths and injuries have been and continue to be associated with these areas.

Fifty-nine AML projects have been completed in counties south of Interstate 40 and east of Interstate 35 (Atoka, Coal, Haskell, Latimer, LeFlore, McIntosh, and Pittsburg). These projects have reclaimed 1, 233 acres of abandoned mine land, eliminated 61,659 feet of dangerous highwalls and 70 hazardous water bodies, and sealed 312 mine openings. The total cost of these projects cost $6.3 million and another $670,579 was expended on AML emergency projects where there was a sudden collapse of an underground mine. The emergency projects were in Haskell, Latimer, LeFlore, and Pittsburg counties.

Oklahoma conservation districts were strong supporters of the legislation that authorized the AML program and Oklahoma is one of the few states where conservation districts help with the projects. The AML program was implemented in Oklahoma through state legislation in 1981. Oklahoma receives about $1.5 million annually for AML projects and $180,000 for emergency projects. It is estimated that it would take approximately $90 million to reclaim the remaining high priority sites in the state. Over $1.6 billion has been collected from active coal mining operations for reclamation and is in the AML Trust Fund in Washington D. C., but Congress has chosen not to allocate it to states.

“It’s a shame that there weren’t regulations in place before the 1970s that required companies to reclaim coal mined areas like there is today,” said Mike Thralls, Conservation Commission executive director. “But because there wasn’t, we need to reclaim the most dangerous areas. We are proud to have completed 140 projects that have reclaimed 3,966 acres of abandoned coal mine areas and sealed 319 open mine shafts. The program has greatly reduced safety hazards and restored these areas to a productive state.”