A pile of waste coal near Clinchco in Dickenson County. Photo courtesy of Frank Kilgore.

RICHMOND – More than 200 years of unregulated coal mining in the commonwealth has resulted in mountains of unclaimed waste materials scattered across Southwest Virginia. Experts estimate that hundreds of so-called gob piles could amount to between 50 to 100 million tons of toxic mining waste. “They are everywhere,” said Frank Kilgore, an attorney in St. Paul who has for decades been involved in coalfield economic development.

But legislation currently being weighed by the General Assembly would mark a serious effort by the state in addressing this environmental concern. Senate Bill 120, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County, seeks to direct Virginia Energy (formerly the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy) to identify the approximate volume and number of waste coal piles still present in the coalfield region and come up with options for their removal, including the use of waste coal for the generation of electricity. 

State Sen. Travis Hackworth, R-Tazewell County.

A substitute of Hackworth’s proposal cleared a Senate subcommittee last week and on Monday was unanimously approved by the full Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, which referred it to the chamber’s Finance Committee. Similar legislation is also pending in the House of Delegates, sponsored by Del. William Wampler, R-Washington County. 

Both measures follow a recommendation in a recent study by the Appalachian School of Law that considered the location and impact of waste coal sites and concluded that a “programmatic effort should be undertaken to remediate the gob piles in Southwest Virginia.” The study estimated that remediation would result in about $72 million in economic benefits to the public over a 20-year program. 

For Hackworth, his proposal is personal. Raised in Buchanan County, he grew up in the coalfields and is no stranger to mining waste. “My family has a long history of coal miners, and one of my furthest recollections was to play on those gob piles and slide down from them,” Hackworth said in an interview with Cardinal News. “We thought that was cool back then, but then I got to realize and learn about some of the harmful qualities of gob, which has some metals that can seep into water that people actually drink.”

A gob pile is built of accumulated spoil, the waste rock removed during coal mining. It is typically composed of shale, as well as smaller quantities of carboniferous shale and various other residues. It also usually has a higher concentration of mercury than normal coals. 

“Many of these piles are covered with leaves, and some have been there for more than 100 years and they aren’t easy to find,” said Kilgore, the attorney from St. Paul. Because they often have pieces of coal mixed in, they sometimes catch on fire. “In several generations, miners just threw the gob down the hill or into a creek,” he said. “When you leave it there and it’s a deep pile of coal mixed with rock and dirt, it’s very prone to catching on fire through spontaneous combustion. It can burn for years and you can smell them for miles.”

The practice of discarding waste coal ended in 1977, when the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act was enacted, requiring coal companies to reclaim their mines and mining waste. And with reclamation funds collected since that year from coal production and the construction of Dominion Energy’s coal- and biomass-fired Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in St. Paul in 2012, some sites are slowly being cleaned up. 

(Dominion Energy is a major donor of Cardinal News; under our rules, donations have no influence on our news coverage.)

One major effort dates back to 2016, when Dominion Energy announced that about 500,000 tons of gob coal had been removed from the Hurricane Creek site in Russell County and trucked to St. Paul to be burned. 

Virginia Energy had identified the 12-acre site as its highest priority for reclamation in the Dumps Creek watershed. The gob pile was located near Carbo on Dumps Creek and about a half-mile from the Clinch River. It dated back to the early 1900s, when the Moss 2 mine was first being operated by Clinchfield Coal Co.

For this project – which experts said would help significantly improve water quality in the Clinch River – Dominion partnered with Gobco LLC of Abingdon to identify and reclaim old waste coal sites in Southwest Virginia. Gobco screened out the waste coal and provided it to Virginia City for use in the power station.

“The Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center has helped reclaim more than 4 million tons of gob coal in Southwest Virginia, improving nearby water and air quality while also providing reliable electric service,” said Dominion spokesman Rayhan Daudani. “We support efforts to further identify gob piles in the coalfield region to undertake additional remediation projects.”

To Kilgore, Virginia City – the only plant in the commonwealth to burn gob – is the only viable solution in dealing with Southwest Virginia’s mining waste. “They can burn a few million tons,” he said. “Some environmentalists have been saying to put it all in a landfill, but that would cost billions of dollars, and we don’t have any billions that are earmarked. You’d also create a fire hazard where you bury it.”

Virginia City is currently slated to remain online until 2045, when it is to be closed by the Virginia Clean Economy Act of 2020. But Kilgore said that the political dynamics could still change, and in the meantime, the facility would be crucial to the clean-up process. “Gob is a threat to communities and bad for the environment, so let’s get these piles permanently taken care of with the least impact to the environment,” he said. The only way to do that is to take it to Virginia City. “If we didn’t have it, we would have to build one to get rid of it,” Kilgore said of the facility.

Chelsea Barnes of the environmental organization Appalachian Voices said that while the group supports Hackworth’s bill in the substituted version, she said it is unclear what sort of analysis would be required of Virginia Energy in the latest version of the bill as the agency already maintains an inventory map of pre-1977 gob piles. “Some of the language in the bill is confusing and may need clarification before it is enacted,” Barnes said.

More on waste coal

  1. Commentary, Oct. 17: A real solution to coal waste reclamation and repurposing.
  2. News story, Nov. 9: What to do with the gob?
  3. Commentary, Jan. 26: An opportunity in coal country

Virginia Energy estimates that there are approximately 722 acres of land impacted by gob with about 245 piles remaining, but Barnes said that this is “likely a significant underestimate” as there are many Abandoned Mine Land features, including gob piles, that are either unknown or simply have not been reported to Virginia Energy and are not in the database.

“If the goal is simply to present to the General Assembly the options for reclamation generally, that is certainly feasible for Virginia Energy to accomplish with their current resources and expertise,” Barnes said.

Barnes also said that because the gob coal issue has been before the General Assembly only with respect to the Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center in recent years, lawmakers unfamiliar with the details of gob or abandoned mine land reclamation may be under the impression that burning the gob in the power plant is the only option for reclamation. 

“We would appreciate the opportunity to present to the General Assembly a study that talks about the complex issue of reclaiming gob and the various alternatives to burning the hazardous material,” Barnes said. 

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Markus Schmidt

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org.