Pennsylvania project uses mine lands for biofuel crops

By Lisa Gibson
Posted October 14, 2009, at 7:17 a.m. CST

A project in Pennsylvania seeks to determine if abandoned and active mine lands can be reclaimed and used to grow biofuel crops such as switchgrass and other warm-season grass species.

Pennsylvania has about 180,000 acres of abandoned mine land, plus active mine land, that is not being used currently for food, feed or fiber, according to Rick Stehouwer, Penn State professor of environmental and soil science. That degraded land can be used for biomass production, but it needs to be reclaimed first, he said. The project will evaluate the effectiveness of soil amendments, determine whether the land can support biomass crops, and if the crops are cost effective.

Stehouwer and Marvin Hall, Penn State professor of forest management, have been tending to a privately owned plot planted with switchgrass and other grasses in Schuylkill County for the past four years. The project includes evaluating the use of excess manure from livestock operations and paper mill sludge as reclamation techniques and evaluating sustained production potential and management requirements, Stehouwer said. The projects also will evaluate the amount of nutrient leaching with the different soil amendments, as compared with traditional amendments such as lime and fertilizer.

Another 30-acre reclaimed plot in Clearfield County is in its first year of the project and is being used to grow switchgrass, big bluestem grass and others. "We hope to keep these experiments going long term," Stehouwer said, adding that it depends on available funding as costs can be high. The Schuylkill project will continue for another two or three years, he hopes, and the Clearfield project should have about the same life span.

The project got its start when a representative of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council approached Stehouwer, wondering if manure could be used to rehabilitate mine lands. "These are minimally productive areas without significant intervention," Stehouwer said. Mined sites are usually not in highly fertile areas, the soil has a fairly low pH and extremely low organic matter content as the result of the mining, and the moving of the soil in the mining process causes compaction.

"The potential exists for someone to farm that land," he said. "That's something we hope would happen." Barriers to developing it exists, however, including the fact that most of the abandoned and active mine lands are privately owned. It's up to those landowners to determine how to handle their land after reclamation and not all of the 180,000 acres of abandoned mine land can be used for agricultural purposes because of layout and other issues.