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Need for abandoned mine program continues in ND, but future uncertain

A sinkhole about 10 feet across developed in the ditch of Highway 36 near Wilton in 2011. The Public Service Commission filled the sinkhole in 2011 using funding from the Abandoned Mine Lands program. This summer, the program will fund a drilling and grouting project to stabilize underground mines along that highway. “This is what we’re trying to prevent," said Public Service Commission Chairman Randy Christmann. Submitted photo 1 / 2
Jordan Burns, left, a project manager with the Public Service Commission, shows contractors details of the Carrick Mine area during a visit to the former coal mine on March 29. The purpose of the tour was for contractors to view the area in Morton County before submitting bids for the reclamation of the coal mine. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune 2 / 2

BISMARCK—About $1.6 million will be dedicated this year to stabilize collapsing underground coal mines in central and western North Dakota, preventing sinkholes from developing on roadways.

Another $300,000 reclamation project will eliminate dangerous highwalls at two abandoned surface coal mines in Morton County.

The dollars administered by the North Dakota Public Service Commission come from the Abandoned Mine Land program, funded through a federal tax on coal that is distributed to states.

The program aims to eliminate public hazards from areas affected by coal mining before 1977 in which the mine operator has no continuing responsibility.

North Dakota received $2.8 million this year, a level sufficient to keep up with reclaiming abandoned mines that pose a hazard to the public, said Randy Christmann, chairman of the Public Service Commission.

But the long-term future of the program is uncertain with the authorization for the tax set to expire after 2021.

"The reality is we face the potential end of this program," Christmann said

Bill Dodd, assistant director for North Dakota's Abandoned Mine Lands program, said he expects the state's inventory of projects to continue beyond 2021.

"We think that we could spend at least another $40 million on high-priority abandoned mine land reclamation, if we had that money," Dodd said.

In Burleigh County, contractors will continue stabilizing underground coal mines along North Dakota State Highway 36 near Wilton, a continuation of work that began in 2015.

The underground mines near Wilton were active about 100 years ago, Dodd said.

"It leaves a void underground and as time goes by that void, which might be 50 or 60 or 70 feet below ground, the roof caves in and it keeps on caving in until it gets to the surface," he said. "Then it becomes a sinkhole."

In 2011, a sinkhole developed in a road ditch along the highway near Wilton.

The state prioritizes projects that pose the greatest hazard to the public, such as preventing sinkholes in or near a roadway.

"Someone could be killed or injured badly, just instantly," Christmann said.

The work to fill those voids involves drilling into the workings of the mine and pumping pressurized grout. Work is expected to occur from June to September.

In addition to the project near Wilton, similar work also is planned to stabilize underground coal mines at a farmstead about 14 miles north of Parshall in Mountrail County and at two businesses along Williams County Highway 9 near Williston.

Another $100,000 will be available this year to fill sinkholes that create emergencies or for maintenance work on reclaimed sites.

Christmann anticipates that sinkholes could develop more frequently as the abandoned mines continue to age.

"Every year, these old mine shafts are another year older," he said.

Another reclamation project planned this year will eliminate about 2,850 feet of dangerous highwalls at two abandoned surface coal mines northwest of New Salem.

The Carrick and Nilles mines have highwalls that are 15 to 40 feet high and within about 500 feet from a road.

"They're very steep," Dodd said. "Not quite straight down, but almost."

The sites were mined before 1957, but the state doesn't have good documentation on precisely when they were active coal mines, Dodd said.

The 36-acre reclamation project will involve backsloping and backfilling the highwalls, using earthen material from adjacent spoil piles.

Contractors recently visited the sites and bids will be awarded next week.

North Dakota should have received $3 million from the Abandoned Mine Land program for 2018, but the amount was reduced to $2.8 million due to sequestration.

The federal dollars pay for staff positions at the Public Service Commission to run the program, as well as contractors and temporary inspectors who are hired to oversee the work.

The federal reclamation fee that the coal industry pays will be collected through Sept. 30, 2021. That would mean 2022 would be the last year for North Dakota to receive a grant, Dodd said.

Christmann said he hopes the federal program is reauthorized and the funds aren't diverted to other priorities.

"I hope this program lasts a good long time yet because there's certainly plenty of voids underneath our roads," Christmann said.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., had the Abandoned Mine Land program in his portfolio when he served on the Public Service Commission. Cramer said he would advocate for continuing the federal program.

"It's likely it would be extended if it continues to be needed. And it is needed," Cramer said.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he expects the program will be reauthorized.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said she thinks there's a need for the program and would be open to considering an extension of it.

"The coal industry needs justification because these are dollars that they pay," Heitkamp said.

Wade Boeshans, president and general manager of BNI Energy and chairman of the Lignite Energy Council, said the industry has been supportive of the abandoned mine land reclamation fund for decades.

"I believe that so long as there's a need for continued abandoned mine land reclamation, it'd be supported by the industry," Boeshans said.

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