Editorial Focus by Harold Hough

Obama loves to talk about how bad coal is for the environment. However, he forgets that coal mining gives back a lot. And, it goes far beyond good jobs and taxes. In fact, it is a coal mine that funded the biggest archeological operation in the United States. It is coal mines that are helping bring back endangered bird species; while Obama funds wind farms that are a major threat to them. It is even a coal mine that helped bring buffalo back from near extinction to a level that they can now be found at your local supermarket in the ground meat section.

Like buffalo burgers? Thank the Freedom Mine near Beulah, ND, who reintroduced buffalo to this section of the Great Plains. It all began when a Freedom Mine employee began to raise buffalo for meat. Unlike cattle, buffalo are relatively maintenance free; requiring only grass, water and a fence to keep them in one place. When the Environmental Manager, Joe Friedlander, learned about this hobby, he asked if a herd of them could be brought over to graze on mine land. As grazing animals, the buffalo solved the problem of maintaining a proper balance between winter and summer grasses. When the winter grasses flourish, they are eaten by the buffalo, which opens enough space for the summer grasses to come through, when it’s time.

Buffalo also help reenergize the reclaimed land. When the topsoil is stored, it loses many of the bacteria and nutrients that were built up when it was a part of a living ecosystem. Consequently, when it’s used in reclamation, it can take time for them to build up to normal levels.

Grazing buffalo help the soil regain the original bacteria and nutrients. While grazing, the buffalo’s hooves break up the ground, while their manure and urine enrich the soil. The result is that the grasslands spring back after reclamation faster than with conventional methods.

While renewable energy sources like wind farms are killing off endangered bird species, coal mines are helping to help them thrive. When the Big Sky Mine in Montana originally received its permit, the mine was restricted to only mining coal in the broad valleys between the bluffs. However, there were considerable coal reserves in the steeper slopes between the bluffs. Unfortunately, the permit didn’t allow mining there and conventional reclamation was too expensive.

The creative solution came from the mine’s reclamation experts, who recommended that the highwalls created during the mining be retained to add to the natural bluffs surrounding the area. In addition to their natural beauty, bluffs are an important part of the ecology because many endangered predator birds like eagles and hawks nest in the cliffs, while small mammals live in the rubble at their base. Fortunately, Montana’s environmental rules allow for alternate reclamation.

The new reclamation method was cheap enough to allow the mine to remove more overburden and mine more coal - thus creating more bluffs. By the time reclamation was over, the mine had added 450,000 square feet of bluff. Several artificial nesting cavities were created in the bluffs so predatory birds would be encouraged to nest there. Rubble zones were also placed at the base of the bluffs for small animals.

Coal mining has also helped archeology more than Indiana Jones ever did. It all began in 1966, when Peabody signed agreements with the Hopi and Navajo nations in order to mine coal at Black Mesa and Kayenta. Although a new federal antiquities act required companies to investigate archaeological sites that were to be disturbed, Peabody was to become an eager participant in a major archeological program that went far beyond the requirements and helped document and preserve Native American life as it had never been done before. Peabody even hired Medicine Men to identify culturally important plant life for the reclamation phase. As a result, the Hopi and Navajo nations have a more vibrant cultural history than they did in the 50 years ago.

Starting in 1967 and continuing for the next sixteen years, Peabody spent $6 million exploring 65,000 acres. During that time, they identified 2,500 sites and excavated 220 of them. More than one million artifacts were recovered by archaeologists and returned to the Hopi and Navajo nations.

One of the most interesting discoveries was the fact that Native Americans were using coal long before Europeans. Archaeologists uncovered large villages occupied by the Anasazi, where coal ash was found in trash heaps and hearths. On the south side of Black Mesa, where coal seams were exposed, prehistoric Indians mined the coal with wood, stone, and antlers – often removing tons of sandstone overburden in order to expose the seam. Near the villages of Awatove, geologists found evidence that Indians mined 27,000 tons of coal, enough to provide a half a ton of coal per day for the three hundred years that the village was occupied.

Coal was used for more than heating homes. Piles of coal ash were also found near piles of pottery shards, which indicated that coal was used to fire the pottery. Not only was the coal a conventional fuel in some areas, the high temperatures made the pottery harder (though more brittle). This high temperature gave the pottery a distinctive yellow tint. From 825 AD to the 1,500s, Native Americans used coal for firing about 1% of all the pottery found. After the 1500s, the Spanish introduced domesticated animals and the Indians started to use sheep dung for firing pottery.