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W&J Project Explores Ways to Stabilize Coal Mining Sites



November 20, 2023 - Since 2018, Washington & Jefferson College students have been working on a project to determine the best methods of restoring soil in abandoned coalfields.

Stabilization of Coal Mine Overburden Through Vegetation has been a student-driven project of Dr. Jason Kilgore, associate professor of biology. Most recently, it has involved senior Jonathan Grabowski of Pittsburgh, who joined the project as a research intern in the summer of 2022.


Jonathan Grabowski, left, and Dr. Jason Kilgore attended the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Portland, Ore., in August.


Courtesy of Dr. Jason Kilgore 

Kilgore describes overburden as shale with low-quality coal moved out of the way to access the high-quality coal seam.

The area chosen for this experiment is an abandoned mine in Marianna, at one time considered one of the most outstanding coal mining sites in the state and perhaps the country.

Kilgore said observing a river of sediment flowing across a barren surface into Horne Run and Ten Mile Creek prompted him to want to find an inexpensive way to stabilize the acidic material from eroding into streams.

“The excess material from these coal mines was historically and conveniently dumped close to the mine, typically within valleys near streams,” Grabowski said. “This overburden material has a low pH, low nutrient levels, and heavy metals, all of which prevent plants from growing on the dumped material. This material is loose and friable, which means that erosion into lower elevations, like streams, is common. Given the physical nature of the material, stream water quality and aquatic organisms can be affected.”

A grant for the project was provided by Chance to Change Lives, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering students from underserved backgrounds, which receives its funding from various organizations and foundations.

Chance to Change Lives is the brainchild of Kriti Gupta, a student at Upper St. Clair High School. Its flagship program is called STEMnetX, which is designed to provide meaningful learning experiences for STEM career development opportunities for undergraduate and high school students.

“We identify the opportunities for research that liberal arts colleges are providing for students, not only enriching their lives but also making local impact in a region,” said Dr. Rama Bala, CEO of Chance to Change Lives and Gupta’s mother. “We are also helping students to pursue careers in STEM fields.”

During the last 18 months, Chance to Change Lives has invested $100,000 toward numerous research experiences.

At the mine site, previous students working on the project planted four types of grass – annual ryegrass, little bluestem, lavender and a strip mine seed mix – in 60 experimental plots to determine the four-year success of the plants.

“The site where we’re working didn’t have any vegetative cover,” Kilgore explained. “Nothing has grown on it since the ‘70s. It’s been bare and eroding into the creek. We’re just trying to figure out how to best stabilize this stuff.”

Grabowski, 21, works for the campus arboretum and cares for the campus trees. He completed the research of these plantings and discovered based on density and height, little bluestem and the strip mine seed mix showed the most growth, especially in plots containing lime or a combination of lime, straw and a fungus and plant combination called mycorrhizae.

Grabowski then designed an experiment in which 50 tree seedlings were installed in November 2022 at the site to evaluate if woody plants might encourage deeper overburden stabilization and increase soil organic matter production.

A woody plant is one that produces wood as its structural tissue, typically a tree or a shrub. Five of the top six species were planted – black cherry, black locust, black oak, red maple and shagbark hickory.

“We wanted to create an experiment at the same spot with trees instead of just plants,” Kilgore said. “We wanted to use woody plants this time. The roots would probably grow deeper, rather than the grasses or non-woody plants that we used.”

“We wanted to use the trees because we want to limit the amount of erosion going into the stream,” Granowski added. “We selected the ones that appeared the most that we could get cheaply. There were two different treatments used, controlled treatment and a lime and wood chip treatment. We’re going to monitor how these trees are going to grow in this overburdened soil and make recommendations.”

Grabowski gave a presentation on the project at the American Ecological Society meeting in Portland, Ore., in August.

The trees will be studied for 10 years, giving many more of Kilgore’s students a chance to work on the project.

“I have this propensity for recruiting first-year students to help upper level students,” he said. “They become the mentors to these first- and second-year students. Then they become interested.”

Grabowski, an environmental science major with a minor in computing and information studies, feels his work on the project has helped him determine a path for his future. Working as an intern with the U.S. Forest Service this past summer served to heighten his interest in possibly becoming an ecological researcher.

“I really enjoyed working and collecting data in the field,” he said. “My favorite part about working on this research was collecting the data and making graphs with the data. I loved making graphs because each graph told a different story about how each plant grew on each soil treatment.”

Rama, an affiliate professor of physics at W&J, has been excited to see how the project is evolving.

“It’s very exciting to know he’s following his passion and this is a place for him to continue that path,” she said. “These are the types of projects that we are really excited by. When we find students who think about staying in STEM-related fields, it’s exciting for us to continue to listen and learn from stories like this.”