New hope for old mines


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

For all their knowledge of the land, miners, whose legacy lives long in Colorado, had little thought of the long-term environmental consequences of their work. For over 150 years, coal, gold, silver, uranium, gypsum and limestone, among other resources, have been drilled, blasted and hauled from their hiding places. When the supplies were exhausted in one spot, the miners simply walked away.

As we now well know, when a mine closes, the story doesn’t end there.

There are an estimated 23,000 abandoned mines in Colorado, and many more throughout the West. Since 1980, Colorado’s Inactive Mine Reclamation Program has been the sole body charged with addressing the hazards of abandoned mines. During that time, it has secured the openings of 5,600 mines and reclaimed 1,539 acres of mined land. But the tailings of thousands of defunct mines are still spoiling countless acres and 1,300 miles of streams.

Hope Mine tailings, near Aspen. Image courtesy of For the Forest

Colorado’s remediation program is limited by the reclamation fees paid by current coal mine operations. Since restoration is time-consuming and costly ($1.5 million per mine by some estimates), only a fraction have been reclaimed.

A much cheaper possible solution, currently being field-tested by a non-profit based in Carbondale, may change the reclamation landscape entirely.

Since 2007, the Flux Farm Foundation  has been working on reclamation with a promising substance known as biochar. Biochar is made by burning biomass (like wood, animal and crop waste) in an oxygen-limited environment, resulting in a stable form of carbon that has superior water- and nutrient-retention abilities.

These characteristics make it an ideal candidate to restore moonscape-like mine sites, where vegetation (that could capture toxic metals leaching out of abandoned mines and into waterways) is long gone.

Using biochar to reduce metal toxicity and to boost the fertility of compromised soil isn’t a new concept, but using it clean up mines is. The Mountain Studies Institute, based in Silverton, has done some small-scale biochar trials on mine lands in the San Juan Mountains, but Flux Farm’s Hope Mine Project is the first time an entire mine has been taken on.

The Hope Mine, near Aspen, is one of Pitkin County’s nearly 800 abandoned mines. After attempting to resurrect the erstwhile silver mine in the early 20th century, it was ditched again when it came up empty. Since then, heavy metals including arsenic, lead, cadmium and zinc have been leaching out of the waste rock, which is scattered around the mine site like guts scooped out of the belly of Aspen Mountain. In several spots the tailings abut Castle Creek, Aspen’s main drinking water supply.

Flux Farm’s Morgan Williams thinks about biochar as creating a natural netting that immobilizes heavy metals and gives the damaged ecosystem a kick-start. “While the char does not permanently bind to heavy metals, metals temporarily adhere to the surface of the biochar, in some cases for a long enough time for the metals to naturally fall victim to chemical degradation into a permanently immobile and non-toxic conglomerate,” he says. Biochar spread out over contaminated rock and soil also retains moisture, allowing vegetation to gain a foothold during the dry months and it speeds seedling germination.

Millions of beetle-killed pines in Colorado provide an abundant supply of biochar. The 1,600 pounds of biochar used at the Hope Mine came from the Biochar Engineering Corporation in Golden.

Last October, a mix of that biochar, compost and native grass seedlings mix was applied to waste rock slopes over 30 degrees (and up to 45 degrees in some places, which was spread by rock climbers). “The Hope Mine was the first time the technology had ever been scaled to meet the reclamation need for the entire mine,” says Williams.

The trial revealed some real-world logistical and materials handling issues, says Williams, but that phase of the project proved that the biochar technique is simpler than conventional reclamation techniques. And much cheaper. “If what we did at the Hope Mine works, i.e. we are able to re-vegetate the slope, keep erosion at bay, and minimize heavy metals from entering the stream, it will have cost roughly 10 to 20 percent of the cost of conventional reclamation,” says Williams.

The overall success of the Hope Mine Project will be measured when the snow melts, by the number of seedlings that emerge.

If they like what they see, Flux Farm wants to replicate the trial at 10 more mine sites in Colorado this year. They’re looking at gold and silver mines, and one uranium mine. Government agencies are “skeptical and cautious,” about using biochar to heal the land, says Williams. “We do have the full attention of many federal agencies including the BLM, Forest Service, and EPA. They are watching us closely, with many questions and curiosities,” he says.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Biochar Mine Reclaimation
Erich J. Knight
Erich J. Knight
Jan 14, 2011 12:18 AM
 I know some work going on in Wise county VA,
There are mine soil reclamation studies by John Todd, "Beyond Coal", a quite beautiful, self financing, whole ecology vision for remediation. I don't see how any authority could turn down a grant for such concomitant benefits even while the full ecological services are being restored.
"Beyond Coal: A Resilient New Economy for
Appalachia" by John Todd, Samir Doshi, and Anthony McInnis.

This article describes how ecological design can bring life back to the
scarred, surface-mined landscapes of Appalachia and, in the process, help
invigorate the regional economy. The authors propose using ecological
principles to build new soils, revegetate barren lands, treat mining waste,
cultivate foods, and generate fuel. Together, these elements will form the
foundation of a new economy based on natural resources and renewable

Read it here:

The Ag Soil Carbon standard is in final review by the AMS branch at USDA. Both Congresional Ag Committees have asked for expansion of Soil Carbon Standard to ISO status.
Read over the work so far;

Sustainable bio char to mitigate global climate change[…]/ncomms1053.html

 Not talked about in this otherwise comprehensive study are the climate and whole ecological implications of new , higher value, applications of chars.

the in situ remediation of a vast variety of toxic agents in soils and sediments.
 Biochar Sorption of Contaminants;
Dr. Lima's work; Specialized Characterization Methods for Biochar[…]/production-and-characterization.html
And at USDA;
The Ultimate Trash To Treasure: *ARS Research Turns Poultry Waste into Toxin-grabbing Char

the uses as a feed ration for livestock to reduce GHG emissions and increase disease resistance.

Recent work by C. Steiner showing a 52% reduction of NH3 loss when char is used as a composting accelerator. This will have profound value added consequences for the commercial composting industry by reduction of their GHG emissions and the sale of compost as a nitrogen fertilizer.

Since we have filled the air , filling the seas to full, Soil is the Only Beneficial place left.
Carbon to the Soil, the only ubiquitous and economic place to put it.

Thanks for your efforts.

Erich J. Knight
Chairman; Markets and Business Committee
2010 US BiocharConference, at Iowa State University[…]/agenda-overview.html

EcoTechnologies Group Technical Adviser
Shenandoah Gardens (Owner)
1047 Dave Barry Rd.
McGaheysville, VA. 22840
540 289 9750
Co-Administrator, Biochar Data base & Discussion list TP-REPP
mine reclamation
Joe Cole
Joe Cole
Jan 24, 2011 01:07 PM
I love to hear that people are taking an interest in mine reclamation and restoring soils in general. Colorado looks to be the leader in developing new ideas. Last winter I saw an article about a company in Oregon that was "Carbonizing Soil", using biochar, organics, and micro-nutrients for establishing native seeding projects on severely disturbed soils. They say it was developed utilizing the concept of nutrient recycling and how nature provides whats needed to plants instead of man. I found their web site check it out! Good job to High Country News, I like articles like this.
Biochar Companies
Erich J. Knight
Erich J. Knight
Jan 24, 2011 04:14 PM
Nice find Joe,
That company was new to me, and I don't get to say that much concerning biochar systems.

PermaMatrix™ is one of the slickest Biochar products I have seen,
Hydraulically applied, 30:1 c/n ratio
biochar book
Jan 27, 2011 10:48 AM
You want to know all the secrets about biochar ?
This book will help !

Here practice and theory merge under a single cover of "The Biochar Revolution" and reveals hidden secrets of science called Biochar
peng cooley
peng cooley
Feb 17, 2012 04:36 AM
I came an article about a company providing dust control solutions for mine tailings. above all, it is nice to hear that people are interested in reclamation mines and restoring soils.