Reclamation is a pivotal part of Westmoreland Mining LLC’s operations and commitment to the environment.
It’s also a complex, lengthy process that requires a lot of work behind the scenes.
Clayton Stenhouse, a senior environmental planner with Westmoreland Mining, said even before they start digging in the pits, the reclamation process begins, as all of the suitable soils are salvaged. Cover soils are split from subsoils, and will be hauled to areas already undergoing reclamation, or will be put into stockpiles for future use.
“It all works together,” said Stenhouse. “Before we start excavating our next pit, we keep in mind that the back-end, the reclamation part, is to follow, so everything works in unison and at a very large scale.”
The dragline removes the overburden, which is placed in the adjacent, mined-out cut.
“The bulldozers will come in and recontour the overburden removed by the dragline,” said Stenhouse. “This is another part of the first stages of the reclamation process. On the backend, the dozers will be levelling those piles that were placed there by the dragline. They’ll start reclaiming the land that way, and there are slopes that we’re required to meet and reclaim, according to the regulations that are put out by the Ministry of the Environment.
“That’s kept in mind as the dozers are doing the reclaim. They’re reclaiming our ramps and our end cuts to a certain per cent slope that is a requirement by the industry.”
Once the levelling is complete, Westmoreland will start covering the levelled areas with the cover soil.
“The suitable soils that we’re salvaging, then, at the same time, they’ll be hauled on the backend and dumped on areas where we have finished levelling. Those areas are then levelled with dozers covering the recontoured land,” said Stenhouse.
Once the cover soil is in place, then they will use an approved seed that they use that will meet end land use criteria.
“Part of the whole mine process is determining what our end land use is going to be once we are done. We base our seed choices on that fact, so if we said we’re going to use a native seed blend in a particular area, then that’s what we seed it to. If our end land use is going to be native, that’s what we do. Or if it’s livestock grazing, then we’ll seed it to a grass blend. It’s all in efforts to meet our end land use requirement.”
A lot of engineering and design work goes on as well, because they have to factor in the different slopes to make sure they attain the proper slopes based on regulations.
Weekly meetings take place at Westmoreland regarding reclamation, and they execute their plans on a daily basis.
“It’s a big undertaking, but we all work together as one big unified unit as we progress in the direction we’re heading,” said Stenhouse.
For example, one older pit area where they’re finishing up reclamation consists of three sections of land, which would be just under 2,000 acres. It would be one of the smaller pits they’re touching up.
The length of time for reclamation is dependent not only on the size of the site but also the different types of soil textures. In one area they might have a rocky soil where they have a suitable soil depth of 10 centimetres or less, and other areas they have at least 40 centimetres of silty clay soil.
“The soil texture definitely plays a factor in our reclamation efforts. Some pits are a lot sandier, and in those areas, we try to limit our slopes. We try to have less slopes in those areas, just to prevent wind erosion and water erosion.”
Reclamation efforts also happen throughout the year, which presents a challenge. Trying to put cover soil down in the middle of winter can be a challenge, as they have to contend with snow cover and limited daylight hours.
Once Westmoreland finishes mining an area and it’s been in use for non-mining purposes for a while, the company applies for a reclamation release. Since 2018, the company has managed to release just under 4,000 acres of land.
“We do environmental studies on it, so there’ll be a vegetation assessment and wildlife assessments,” he said.
If the land is leased out and grazed, the mines will consult the lessee about the land. They’re usually the best resource, Stenhouse said.
An official application will be submitted to the Ministry of Environment, who reviews the report and the scientific data that has been collected. The ministry conducts an extensive review that includes reports and walking kilometres on the land to ensure everything checks out.
If everything looks good, the final approval is given.
“We’re excited and proud of that fact, that feat that we’ve accomplished,” said Stenhouse.
People are often surprised at how much goes on with reclamation, not just the work itself, but with planning, legwork and engineering for the designs.
“What a lot of people see is the end result, and we’re always hoping that the reclaimed mine lands are more attractive than they were prior to mining,” he said.
Some people will like the flat surface that existed before mining, while others prefer the rolling topography left behind.
Westmoreland Mining wants to be an effective steward of the land. Reclamation is completed safely and efficiently, with the goal of returning the land to a better state than when it started.
“Obviously you’re disturbing a massive area of land, so when you’re putting these areas back, it’s not going to be the same,” said Stenhouse.
They always try to incorporate waterfowl habitat, bodies of water and other amenities at the end of the process. If the land was used for livestock grazing before mining began, Westmoreland wants to see it used for pastureland again.
“There is a lot of eyes on reclamation, and along with that, there’s a lot of new technology advancements and methods, too, for reclamation, which opens a lot of doors and makes the whole activity more interesting.”