Colorado's Coal Basin starts a new life

Students and the state help recover aformer miningtract

 

REDSTONE, Colo. - For six years, geologist Steve Renner has been driving the winding roads of western Colorado's Coal Basin to oversee the cleanup and restoration of land with underground coal mines. Now, his job is almost done.

On this slate day in October, bulldozers are knocking out one of the last remaining roads close to the bottom of the 6,000-acre basin. Next year, Renner, who works for Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, will pass management of the area over to the Forest Service, which will eventually turn it into a recreation area. Then, Renner hopes, outdoor enthusiasts instead of bulldozers will explore Coal Basin's steep slopes and they, along with the Forest Service, will become the basin's stewards.

Today, while the bulldozers descend, Renner is consulting with nine students from an alternative high school in nearby Glenwood Springs. They've spent the morning counting bugs and surveying stream beds as part of a four-day Forest Service ecosystem-monitoring project. Renner gathers the students near Coal Creek, which once ran black for over a month when Mid-Continent mine's settling ponds failed. He explains how he's tried to restore the basin's natural drainage system, and when one student throws out his own idea about repairing the drainage, Renner beams.

It's been a long haul for Coal Basin to make even a small recovery. While taking an estimated 20 million tons of coal from five high-altitude mines over nearly 40 years, Mid-Continent Resources heaped refuse and carved roads throughout the watershed. That left behind what Carolyn Johnson, a Denver-based environmental consultant who's worked on mining issues for over three decades, once called "the worst coal mine site I've seen in the West" (HCN, 9/6/93: New mine disaster looms over Colorado).

To make matters worse, the mine went bankrupt and shut down in 1991, and Mid-Continent couldn't dig up the $3 million it owed Colorado for reclamation. The state eventually won the $3 million in bankruptcy court and started receiving the money in 1994. That's when Renner and an army of contractors began the arduous process of moving tons of bare earth and debris, reseeding slopes and roads and trying to restore the watershed.

"It's been amazing to watch what Steve has been able to accomplish over the last couple of years," says Susy Ellison, the Yampah Mountain High School teacher who this year brought her third group on the 25-mile trip from Glenwood Springs to Coal Basin.

Not everyone in Ellison's group was intrigued by what was going on at Coal Basin. But many Yampah students have struggled in traditional settings, Ellison says, and she thinks involving them in the real problems of an environmental project has been invaluable.

"All of this work that we did can be piled together to form a really strong idea of what's going on in Coal Basin," says Josanna Morningstar, 18, who adds that her dyslexia makes book-learning a battle.

For some students, such as 15-year-old Josh DeHaven, who's now in his third high school, the project at Coal Basin was inspiring. He spent a lot of his week near Renner's side, and now he and Morningstar are planning with Renner and the Forest Service's Andrea Holland-Sears to do monitoring and replanting work at Coal Basin next summer.

"It's a great feeling to be a part of this project," says DeHaven. "I'm seriously thinking about giving my time in the future."

After watching Coal Basin slowly come back to life, Renner is encouraged by the thought of Yampah students taking over some of the work here. "It's kind of put the exclamation mark on my work to get kids involved who can come and use this place for at least 30 or 40 more years," he says.

Oakley Brooks is an intern for High Country News.

You can contact ...

  • Steve Renner with the State of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, 2148 Broadway, Suite C-5, Grand Junction, CO 81503 (970/241-0336);
  • Susy Ellison at Yampah Mountain High School, 695 Red Mountain Dr., Glenwood Springs, CO 81601 (970/945-9463);
  • Andrea Holland-Sears at White River National Forest, P.O. Box 948, Glenwood Springs, CO 81602 (970/945-3256)
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