Hobet Coal Mine - Madison, W.V.

Landsat Images of a Surface Mine

1985 to 2015

Brian A. Bird
Earth Science 775
Emporia State University


Abstract

Coal mining is a dirty and dangerous endeavor. Deep in the hills of Appalachia, coal mining has been a staple of the economy for over two hundred years in an area that supports few other industries and very little agriculture. Coal seams located close to the surface are mined above and below the surface. With large modern equipment, coal companies have increasingly turned to surface mining due to its safety and efficiency. But, surface mining exacts a hefty toll on the environment. This project is a case study of the Hobet coal mine in southern West Virginia. This mine was active from 1974 to 2015. During that time, the coal industry went through a period of rapid growth followed by a near collapse. The operators of the Hobet Mine responded by investing in heavy machinery and employing an effective but controversial mining techniques known as Mountain Top Removal/Valley Fill. Landsat images taken from 1985 through 2015 are used to document the extent of the mining activities and the remediation efforts. Graphs of mine employment and mine output correlate well with the active mine area seen on the Landsat images.

Background

Coal Mining in Appalachia consist of both underground and surface mining. One particularly controversial technique of surface mining is known as Mountain Top Removal/Valley Fill (MTR/VF).

This technique entails clearing all vegetation and topsoil from the top of the mountain and then blasting down to the coal seam using explosives. A dragline is used to move the loosened earth to another location, often the adjacent valleys. Once the coal seam is uncovered, the coal is removed with front-end loaders or excavators. After the coal seam is removed, further blasting may be conducted to reach a lower coal seam. Eventually, the overburden is returned to the mine pit and the mountain is restored as near as practical to its original elevations.

Advantages of MTR/VF is that it is cheaper, more efficient, and less dangerous than subsurface mining. There are however, many disadvantages. Since as much as 500 feet of the mountain top must be removed, there is much overburden which must be relocated until the mining is complete. This is generally done by placing the overburden in the valleys. This causes drainage and water quality problems for the valley streams. Another issue is that invariably, there is more overburden produced than can be placed back on the mountain during the remediation phase. This is because after blasting, the overburden is less consolidated and is incapable of supporting the steep slopes that existed prior to removal. The end result is that even with the best remediation efforts, the mountains will be lower and the valleys will be at least in part filled with the excess overburden. Another concern is the time that is takes for the natural flora and fauna to be reestablished. In many cases the soil is much degraded from the original top-soil and it is simply not possible to re-establish the site to its pre-mine condition.

One of the largest Appalachian mines that utilized the MTR/VF technique was the Hobet Mine near Madison, WV. The Hobet mine started in 1974 as a small family run coal mine. In 1977 the mine was sold to Ashland Oil. With the new capital, a large dragline was added in 1983. This allowed the mine to more than double its output without having to increase the size of its workforce. Over the next few decades, the mine changed owners several times. The past decade has been very trying for the coal industry, with decreasing demand and stiffer competition from the natural gas industry. In 2015, several large coal companies sought bankrupcy protection including Patriot Coal, which owned the Hobit Mine. Citing high costs due to unsustainable worker pensions, environmental liabilities, and low coal prices Patriot ceased operations at the Hobet mine in 2015.

Hobet Mine Through the Years

The following images, mostly taken from Landsat-5, show the expansion of the mine in roughly five year intervals starting in 1985.

Click on button to see the image for each year

The bright area is the active mining site. Remediated areas appear light grey to pale green.

Coal production at The Hobet Mine increased significantly in the late 1990's and early 2000's as increasing natural gas prices made coal an attractive choice for power generation. Growth of the Hobet mine during this period is evident in this series of images. The boom was not to last though. In 2008 natural gas prices fell sharply due in large part to the practice of hydraulic fracking. This resulted in even lower demand for coal, which was already a declining industry.

These false color composite images show the near-infrared band in red. In these images, the remediated mine sites appear gray, to pink, to a deeper red as the vegetation returns. This is in high contrast to the active mining area which appears light gray to light blue.

Click on button to see the image for each year

Economic Factors

The following chart shows Hobet Mine employment between 1975 and 2016.

Hobet Mine Output

The number of employees increases steadily until 1983 when the dragline became operational.

A sharp decline in employment in 1993 corresponds to a miner's strike over the worker's health plan.

Annual coal production from 1975 to 2016 is shown in the following chart.

Hobet Mine Output

The strike in 1993 lasted from May until December and significantly affected the output for that year.

Although the images are only shown at roughly five year intervals, one can see a strong correlation between the mine output and the apparent size of the active mine area. The Hobet Mine saw steady increases in output through the later part of the 1990's. By 2000, a new large mine site was active to the southwest and vegetation can be seen returning to formerly mined land. Mine output reached its peak in 2002. By 2005, the mine had moved on to a new area to the northwest. Remediation efforts in the previous mine site to the east is quite apparent by 2005. By this time, mine output was in decline which was reflective of the industry as a whole.

Hobet Mine Today

In 2015, the mine's owner, Patriot Coal, declared bankrupcy for the second time in three years and the Hobet mine was closed later that year. In January 2016, W.V. governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced a bold plan named Rock Creek Development Park which aimed to attract new industry to the former mine site. The rough terrain typical of Appalachia is seen by many as a deterant to large scale industrial development. In this case, the inevitable leveling of the terrain which follows strip mining might be seen as a blessing in disguise. Rock creek Development Park's website boasts of having over 12,000 acres of flat developable terrain.

References:

Rucker, Patrick. "The rise and demise of a West Virginia coal mine". Reuters Aug.5, 2016

http://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/20160116/tomblin-proposal-for-hobet-mine-site-development-a-long-way-from-reality Jan. 16, 2016

http://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/20160512/hobet-mine-site-holds-promise-but-no-plan-yet May 12, 2016

http:/www.nasdaq.com/markets/natural gas