Three more area mines are going to get a start on cleanup this year, and we’re glad to see it.
Pathfinders Resource Conservation and Development received four grants for $100,000 apiece, and three of the sites are in the immediate area. Anna Bruen, the organization’s executive director, said Wednesday one is in Mahaska County, another is in Davis County, and the third is near Eldon in Wapello County.
Mining was once a major business in southeast Iowa, but the coal found here isn’t what people use today. Mining withered away, but it did so before companies were required to clean up or restore the land. Most of the mines were open pits, and they left hundreds of scarred areas across the region.
Why does this matter today? A big reason Iowa coal isn’t used is that it has a high sulfur content. When water mixes with sulfur, you get sulfuric acid. And, since the mines rarely — if ever — got all the coal, there was plenty left exposed to rain and runoff.
The resulting acid made it hard for much of anything to grow and contaminated nearby streams and creeks. It was, in short, a mess.
Mining was more widespread than many people realize. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ map shows a shaft mine was operated from 1929 to 1933 just north of what is now Ottumwa Regional Health Center. The 312-acre Phillips Coal Co. Mine No. 5, another shaft mine, operated from 1903-1914. It ran from where Eisenhower Elementary School stands today well into cropland to the northwest of Ottumwa. Both of those are below ground.
But surface mines were used within today’s city limits as well. There was one east of Highway 149 near what is now the west end of Chilton Street.
Restoration of surface mines isn’t perfect. The sites will be fragile for decades, and have already been forever changed. But when done right they can become beautiful meadows and cover for Iowa animals. When done right it buys nature time to heal.
The Courier has extensively covered one such effort on land owned by Mary Ellen Schmitz. The 55 acres on her family’s land was restored in 2017 and 2018. Workers reshaped the land to slow runoff and added lime to neutralize acid in the ground. We’ve spoken to Schmitz since the work, and she is thrilled to see it done.
The sizes of the new sites are significant. The site west of Eldon is the largest of the three just announced. It’s a bit more than 35 acres. Together the three come to 98 acres being restored.
Reclamation of those mines is more than reclamation of natural areas. It’s more than closing the book on a chapter of Iowa’s past. The work makes today’s Iowa a better place. Future generations won’t have to clean up the mess because we already did.
There are a lot of things we suspect would be done very differently in the historical use of our natural resources if people then knew what we know today. Views are different, and we know a bit more about the world around us than was known then.
For that reason it’s a mistake to judge past operations like the mining in southeast Iowa too harshly. We can only hope it’s a reminder to us.
Today, we bear the responsibility of trying to both use and preserve our natural resources. It’s a sometimes difficult balance that can nonetheless be accomplished. And it’s our responsibility to do so as best we can.