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TERI Information Digest on Energy and Environment
Year : 2005, Volume : 4, Issue : 2
First page : ( 137) Last page : ( 150)
Print ISSN : 0972-6721.

Soil conservation for rehabilitation and revegetation of mine-degraded land

Ghose Mrinal K

Centre of Mining Environment, Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad – 826 004, India

Introduction

The mining industry in India has embraced the concept of sustainable development. Sustainable development is the development that aims to meet the needs of society today, while conserving ecosystems for the benefit of future generations. Rehabilitation is the process by which impacts of mining on the environment are repaired. It is an essential part of developing mineral resources in accordance with the principles of sustainable development. Increasingly these days, the environment protection sought by mining operators includes maintenance of biodiversity. Biodiversity, or biological diversity, is the full variety of living forms - plants, animals, and microorganisms - their genetic make-up, the different species, and the ecosystems of which they are part. Good planning and environmental management will minimize the impacts of mining on the environment and will help preserve this diversity. This is particularly important where there may be potential impacts on rare or endangered species of plants or animals. Mining is a temporary land use, which should be integrated with or followed by other forms. Rehabilitation of mines should be aimed at a clearly defined future land use for the area. The mineral extraction process must ensure return of productivity of the affected land. With rising environmentalism, concurrent post-mining reclamation of the degraded land has become an integrated feature of the whole mining spectrum (Ghose 1989). Conservation and reclamation efforts to ensure continued beneficial use of land resources are essential. This article assesses the deterioration of soil properties due to mining and stockpiling and also evaluates the rehabilitation techniques for renewal of the damaged land for its sustainable and beneficial use.

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Present practice in the field

Opencast mining severely disturbs land in and around the mining areas. In this respect, the Indian coal-mining scenario is rather dismal. The situation becomes more conspicuous when the cumulative efforts of coal production are taken into consideration. Ghosh (1990) reported that every million tonne of coal extracted by surface mining methods damages a surface area of about 4 ha (hectares) in India. It has been estimated that the coal industry accounts for rendering biologically nonproductive an area of about 500 ha a year during 1994/95, which rose to 1400 ha a year by 2000 AD (Chari, Banerjee, Sengupta, et al., 1989).

In the process of opencast mining, several changes occur in the physical, chemical, and microbiological properties of soils (Kundu and Ghose 1998a). Some are caused by the actual construction of store rather than during the course of storage (Sendlein, Lyle, and Carison 1983). Topsoil is an essential component in the abandoned mines for growth of vegetation and has to be preserved for post-mining land reclamation (Kundu and Ghose 1994). It should be noted that in the period between the initial removal of topsoil and final laying of the same over the reclaimed area, there might be a long time lapse (Kundu and Ghose 1997a). Hence, properties of the stockpiled soil will deteriorate and ultimately, will become biologically sterile. As these soils will be utilized for renewal of the degraded land, it is essential to evaluate the continual degradation of the soil properties with respect to time. The issue is the preservation of topsoil (stockpiling) in restoration of the mined land. This problem is very acute in India and large areas are continually being unproductive every year (Kundu and Ghose 2000). The renewal of degraded land has become a great problem to the Indian mining industry. Efforts to grow the vegetation on damaged land as part of biological reclamation are not being successful. Degradation of soil quality depends upon the climatic conditions and various other factors. If biological reclamation is not done in proper time, leaching will lose the nutrients released by microbiological activity and erosion by rainwater and the nutrient cycle will be broken down, and the soil will ultimately be biologically unproductive.

This article examines the revegetation stage of rehabilitation and focuses on the strategy for rehabilitation and revegetation for a sustainable mine closure. Successful rehabilitation to a low-maintenance land use such as a native ecosystem, which is sustainable in the long term, requires an understanding of the basic concepts of soil development, plant succession, and species diversity. Rehabilitation aims to accelerate the natural successional processes so that the plant community develops in the desired way. The vegetation must be resilient to disturbance, especially fire, and principally, nutrient cycling and natural inputs must meet the demand for nutrients. Planning is the key to successful rehabilitation. The rehabilitation plan is an integral part of the mine plan and progressive rehabilitation where possible, is preferable to rehabilitating the whole area only after the mining is completed.

Damage of land due to coal mining

Coal mining started in the RCF (Raniganj Coalfield) area in 1777 during the period of British East India Raj. In fact, it was the first source of coal in India. Till the 1970s there was mainly underground mining and practically there was no worthwhile opencast mining. Underground mining operations were mostly nominal without much use of any machinery. Mechanized opencast mining was started during the seventies, especially after nationalization. There has been degradation of land due to subsidence, collapse of surface, and occurrence of fire caused by haphazard slaughter mining activities. The RCF covers an area of 1530 km2, containing about 1306 km2 of direct coal-bearing land. There are about 117 coalmines, and about 60 km2 area of the RCF has been damaged due to mining operations for a total estimated production of 950 MT (million tonnes) of coal. Out of these, 12 are opencast mines/units and 105 are underground mines/units. In 1987/88, these mines produced 12.17 MT and 15.84 MT of coal from opencast and underground mines, respectively. As per the coal industry's plan, 61.66 MT/year of coal was produced by 2000 AD and 14 000 ha of land in the RCF was damaged due to mining by that time. Out of the 60 km2 of damaged land, all is not totally damaged beyond reclamation. This may be seen from Table 1.

Many large mechanized opencast mines are coming in a big way in the next few years. Likewise, future extraction of coal deposits from the underground will cause subsidence. Further, the RCF contains about 10 seams lying up to a depth of 1200 m and more. Extraction proceedings are in stages. The present mining is largely confined to a depth of 300-700 m depth and limited to exploitation of top of a few seams. In the eastern and central part of the coalfield especially, the seams below are mostly virgin. Therefore, it may not be possible to restore the entire coal belt to the pre-mining stage though in all such coal projects, land reclamation has been provided to restore land to the pre-mining stage. Out of 45-92 km2 about 42.02 km2, chiefly on the western part of the coalfield, may be restored.

Opencast mining severely disturbs land in and around the mining areas as is evident from Table 2. The share of opencast mining is increasing in India's coal production. Coal production from opencast mining progressively increased from 14 MT (20% of total) at the time of coal mine nationalization in 1971/72 to 170 MT (68% of total) in 1994/95, and increased further to about 250 MT (70% of the total) by 2000 (Ghose 1996). Due to such a massive amount of coal extraction, the land disturbance from surface mining in terms of the areas affected has grown to an enormous proportion. The area damaged by opencast mining of coal depends upon the seam thickness, stripping ratio, and quarry depth (Kundu and Ghose 1997b). The total land requirement during the plan period (1990-95) for Coal India Ltd was about 0.12 million ha, of which 30% is falling in the forest areas (Baliga 1990). The Indian coal production, which is in the order of 320 MT/year, is currently supporting about 70 000 MW (megawatts) of thermal power generation, and with further developments being planned for 2010 AD, this quantum of power generation is expected to increase to 150 000 MW. A developing country like India must continue to promote industrial development if it is to achieve its target of establishing 150 000 MW power-generation capacity by 2010 AD (Ghose 2003a). This will require an increased mineral fuel production. More specifically, in order to meet its proposed energy needs, India must produce nearly double the quantity of coal it is mining at present as it's needs for the fuel will be in the range of 550 MT/year by 2010 AD (Ghose 2003b).

Opencast mining leads to a variety of environmental problems, the most serious among them being land degradation. Virtually, all-surface mining methods produce dramatic changes in landscape due to large-scale excavation. This results into the formation of large overburden dumps and huge voids in the mining sites (Namdeo 1989). Today, the country has thousands of hectares of such barren land. By 2000 AD, 500 Mm3 (million cubic metre) of the overburdens was handled from the coal mines only. This had serious problems in respect of solid waste disposal (Ghose 1997).

Impacts on soil quality

By far, the greatest impact of mining on the nation's soil resources is due to opencast mining. Topsoil is an essential component for land reclamation in the coal mining areas (Kundu and Ghose 1994). The topsoil is very seriously damaged if it is not mined out separately in the beginning, with a view to replacement on the filled void surface for due reclamation of the area (Ghose and Kundu 1998). This is particularly necessary due to scarcity of topsoil in coalfield (Ghose and Kundu 1991). Therefore, it is necessary to save topsoil for a later use in a manner to protect the primary root medium from contamination and erosion, and hence, its productivity (Kundu and Ghose 1998b). Sendlein, Lyle, and Carison (1983) indicate, however, that systematic handling and storage practice can protect the physical and chemical characteristics of topsoil while in storage and also after it has been redistributed into the regraded area. Monitoring and implementation of these steps in accordance with the site-specific modern technology will minimize deterioration and provide a medium for plant growth.

Thus, it is clear that problems of topsoil management are diverse and there is a need for a well-directed applied research. This article compares the soil sample characteristics from the unmined soil with those of the excavated mine soil. A fact-finding survey was conducted between these two groups of soil samples through laboratory analysis and the impact of mining on land resources has been evaluated. The laboratory analyses data of the unmined soil and those of the excavated soil are given in Table 3, which indicate the impact of mining in deteriorating the biotic property in soil.

Rehabilitation strategy

Both, the type of mining and characteristics of the particular mineral deposit affect the degree to which mining disturbs the landscape. Underground mining usually causes little surface disturbance and rehabilitation is restricted to tailings dumps, removal of buildings and equipment, and making the area safe. Surface mining results in destruction of the existing vegetation and soil profile (Kundu and Ghose 1997c). Removal of overburden and waste rock, and its replacement in waste dumps or mined-out pit can significantly change the topography and stability of the landscape. Some overburdens may release salt or contain sulfide material, which can generate acid-mine drainage. These materials can sometimes be selectively placed so that they do not cause problems, or they may require specific rehabilitation treatments. These are basic principles of rehabilitation, which are to be always followed (Plass 1978).

Despite the wide range of climatic and soil conditions, and different types of mining operations in India, the basic rehabilitation procedures employed have many similarities. Research before mining can be an important factor in preparing a successful rehabilitation strategy. The more that is understood of the structure and function of the pre-mining ecosystem, the greater the chance of successful rehabilitation (McCromac 1976). Data on the pre-mining vegetation and fauna are a baseline against which rehabilitation can be assessed. Depending upon the agreed appropriate post-mining land use, research may be necessary to define species selection, ecology of native species and seed biology, plant establishment techniques, plant symbioses, and a range of other issues that ensure success of the rehabilitation strategy.

The main objective for rehabilitation includes a statement of the final land use planned for the area. This land use takes into account the land capability of the rehabilitated area and the level of management that requires maintaining this land use. Rehabilitation plans are to be drawn up as early as possible in the development of a project. Sufficient resources are to be allocated to meet the rehabilitation aims. Comprehensive and accurate records are to be kept of all habilitation activities.

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Shelf life concept of topsoil

Almost in every mineral-bearing zone, mining and land degradation have been inseparably connected. In India, there is a regulation to reclaim the mine-degraded land to its original condition as mining is considered to be an intermediate land use. Irrespective of the scheme of exploitation, mining may be expected to affect the environment and ecology of the region. It should be noted that the period between the initial removal of topsoil and final laying of the same over the reclaimed area might have a long time lapse. Hence, properties of stockpiled soil continually deteriorate and ultimately become biologically non-productive. The issue is preservation of topsoil (stockpiling) in a manner so as to protect its productivity for later use in the restoration of mined land. This problem is acute in India and vast mined areas are becoming biologically unproductive every year. Reclamation of the degraded land has become a great challenge to the Indian mining industry. Efforts to grow the vegetation on the overburden dumps and reclaimed mined lands as a part of the biological reclamation are not being successful. The reasons are not completely understood and no work in this line has yet been reported in the Indian context. As this soil is to be utilized for reclamation of the mined land, it is essential to find the reasons of it being biologically unproductive.

Topsoil was found to become biologically sterile if it is not preserved properly (Kundu and Ghose 1997d). Studies were conducted to critically examine the quantitative loss of the soil quantity in the mining areas in order to assess the impact on soil quality due to mining and to evaluate the shelf life of the stockpiled topsoil (Ghose and Kundu 1998). By analysing the deterioration of physical, chemical, and microbiological properties in soil dumps of different ages, the shelf life could be ascertained. Studies revealed that the change in soil quality was found to be drastic in the first year and it deteriorated continually every year due to loss of nutrients by leaching (Ghose 2002). The organic carbon and N-P-K (nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium) values came to a stagnant condition and microbiological population decreased to a minimum level. Due to continual loss of the soil properties with respect to time, the soil was ultimately rendered biologically unproductive after a certain period of time. This period has been named as the shelf life period. Shelf life means the period over which mine soil can maintain its sustainability for suitable plant growth without biological reclamation (Ghose 2001). This concept postulates the hypothesis that if biological reclamation is not done within the shelf life period, the soil will become biologically unproductive and it will be difficult to revive its productivity. This study identifies that the reason behind the biological unproductivity is the lack of knowledge of the shelf life concept.

Shelf life studies indicate whether biological reclamation is required for the stockpiled topsoil. Biological reclamation must be adopted to preserve the topsoil if the storage period exceeds the shelf life period. It is expected that if the shelf life period of topsoil in a particular area is ascertained, the mining authority can decide whether it is essential to choose biological reclamation for preservation of topsoil or whether they can preserve the soil by technical reclamation only (Kundu and Ghose 1998). A prior knowledge of topsoil shelf life would enable mine planners to draw up an appropriate strategy for topsoil excavation vis-à-vis mine scheduling. An appropriate concurrent and post-mining reclamation strategy can also be determined. This will not only save time but also money.

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Recommendations

It is advisable to avoid topsoil storage, especially in the long term. However, if storage is unavoidable, upon completion of the surface of the heap, the following steps are to be followed to keep the soil in good condition.

  1. The surface should be thoroughly ripped with suitable sub-soiling machinery for the purpose of (i) relieving surface compaction caused by the passage of scrapers and other machines, (ii) aeration of soil, and (iii) encouragement of deep-rooting plants by introduced vegetation.

  2. Following ripping, the heap should be cultivated with suitable low-maintenance species, like dwarf grasses, immediately to prevent erosion and gully formation.

  3. The surface vegetation should be actively maintained with seeding and weed control operations.

After final grading and before replacement of the topsoil, it should eliminate slippage surfaces to promote root penetration. Topsoil should be redistributed in a manner that achieves an approximate uniform, stable thickness, consistent with the approved post-mining land uses, contours, and surface water drainage system. It prevents excess compaction of the topsoil and protects it from wind and water erosion. It is of greater importance than any other factor in achieving successful reclamation of surface mined land. The nature of this soil determines the choices available for the plant species. The topsoil must be uniformly redistributed in a manner that assures placement and compaction compatible with the needs of the species that will be used to restore the distributed area to its pre-mined potential.

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Revegetation strategy

When attempting to restore a native ecosystem, the initial revegetation effort is unlikely to produce vegetation identical to the original (Donhue, Miller, and Shickleena 1990). This does not mean that the final canopy species cannot be established in the first instance. The initial revegetation effort must establish the building blocks for a self-sustaining system so that successional processes lead to the desired vegetation complex (Foy 1974). The best time to establish vegetation is determined by the seasonal distribution and reliability of rainfall. All preparatory works must be completed before time when seeds are most likely to experience the conditions, which are needed for germination and survival, that is, reliable rainfall and suitable temperature.

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Fertilizers and soil amendments

Most rehabilitation programmes will include an application of the fertilizer in the establishment phase. Areas rehabilitated to agriculture or other intensive uses will also normally require maintenance of the fertilizer programme (Reeder and Berg 1977). Initial applications of fertilizer have shown to increase the species numbers, plant co-density, and growth rates in a number of areas in India where the objective has been to restore the native vegetation. The type of fertilizer and application rate will vary according to the site, soil type, and post-mining land use (Keeny and Bremner 1966). Application rates of 80 kg/ha of nitrogen, 5-80 kg/ha of phosphorus, and varying rates of potassium and micronutrients have been used. Care needs to be taken when preparing fertilizer prescriptions and applying fertilizers on the rehabilitated areas. The roots of seedlings can be damaged if the fertilizer is placed too close to the plant. Fertilizers, particularly nitrogen fertilizers, may stimulate the growth of weed species. These weeds can jeopardize the success of rehabilitation by out-competing the more desirable species or by becoming a fire hazard. A wildfire may then kill the more beneficial species and hence, succession proceeds in an undesirable direction. Some species, particularly from the family Protease, are reported to be adversely affected by applications of the phosphorus fertilizer. These adverse affects are likely to be seen principally on sandy soils, and are less likely to occur on finer soils with a greater capacity to adsorb phosphorus. Relatively high rates of phosphorus and low rates of nitrogen fertilizer will favour the growth of legumes. The pH of acid soils can be increased by application of lime (calcium carbonate). Low pH (below 5.5 when measured in water) can cause aluminum or manganese toxicity and reduce the availability of some nutrients. Application rates of lime are usually in the range of 2-5 tonnes/ha but will vary according to the soil type, initial pH, and source of lime. Gypsum can be used to improve the structure of poorly structured sodic soils. An exchangeable sodium proportion of greater than 6% can indicate an unstable soil structure. Gypsum is normally incorporated into soil at about 5-10 tonnes/ha. Application of gypsum results in replacement of sodium with calcium on the soil exchange surfaces, which can improve the soil structure, reduce surface crusting, and increase water infiltration. It may also reduce the pH of sodic soils (soils with pH > 8.5). Various organic wastes (for example, animal manures, sewage sludge, and blood and bone) can have value both as fertilizers and soil amendments. However, supply may be unreliable and they are often too expensive, variable in composition, and too hard to spread to be used for large-scale rehabilitation.

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Conclusion

Rehabilitation is an essential part of developing mineral resources in accordance with the principles of ecologically sustainable development. Rehabilitation is not an operation, which should be considered only at, or just before, mine closure. Rather, it should be a part of an integrated programme of effective environmental management through all phases of resource development, from exploration to construction, operation, and closure.

Ecosystems restoration is a relatively new science even though men have been disturbing the land for many centuries. Mining organizations are developing the expertise to re-assemble species into communities that have a chance to grow, develop, and rebuild the local biodiversity. They are achieving this through careful attention to all aspects of rehabilitation and revegetation: from initial planning, clearing, soil removal, storage, and replacement; through species selection and re-establishment of vegetation with its associated organisms; to maintenance of areas into the future. To achieve such recognition requires commitment from all personnel associated with the mining operations. The strategies of rehabilitation outlined in this article should help the mine managers develop the habilitation plan, which, with support of a committed management and workforce, will help achieve a high standard of rehabilitation on mine-degraded land for a sustainable mine closure.

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Tables

Table 1:

Present use of damaged land



Cause of damageNature of damageArea affected (ha)Present use of landPossibility of reclamation

Subsidence due to underground workingLowering of land up to 0.7 m4582Afforestation, fallow land, and waste land4102 ha
Open excavation due to opencast miningRemaining as void402Wasteland, water reservoirWill be reclaimed
Waste dump from opencast mining200–350WastelandMajor part will be reclaimed
Surface fires1000WastelandCan be reclaimed
Unstable ground due to underground collapse408Afforestation, fallow land, and waste land

Source Anon 1988

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Table 2:

Pre-mining land-use patterns of the project and land to be affected due to the mining activities



Pre-mining land-use patternLand (ha) to be affected due to mining activities

Class of landTotal area (ha)
A = A1 + A2
Directly affected (mining only) A1Indirectly affected (industrial site OB dump, township, etc.) A2

Agriculture1873.811171.67702.14
Forest110.56109.910.65
Danga (cultivable waste)113.0585.2527.80
Village46.1524.3821.77
Water body13.705.877.83
Others (road, nullah, etc.)19.739.7010.03
Total2177.001406.78770.22

Source Anon 1987

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Table 3:

Comparison of the properties of unmined and mined soil



ParameterUnmined soilMined soil

Particle size distribution Sand (%)61.266.3
(55.7–65.9)(65.1–67.5)
Silt (%)27.725.1
(24.5–31.3)(24.3–26.1)
Clay (%)11.18.6
(8.6–15.1)(8.1–9.2)
TextureSandy loanSandy loan
Bulk density (mg/m3)1.391.66
(1.38–1.42)(1.65–1.67)
Pose space (%)47.237.4
(46.4–47.9)(37.0–37.7)
Field moisture (%)14.89.5
(11.2–16.6)(8.6–10.5)
Field capacity (%)20.614.7
(18.2–22.1)(13.5–15.6)
Maximum WHC (water holding capacity) (%)42.736.6
(38.2–45.8)(35.9–37.5)
Wilting capacity (%)5.455.81
(5.11–5.82)(5.62–6.05)
pH (1 : 2.5)6.386.24
(6.14–6.65)(6.16–6.35)
EC (dS/m) (electrical conductivity in deci Siemens)0.240.36
(0.17–0.37)(0.32–0.41)
CEC (cmol [p+]/ kg)11.89.61
(9.5–13.9)(9.27–10.14)
(5.31–7.23)(4.74–5.41)
Ca+2(cmol [p+]/kg)6.35.05
Mg+2(cmol [p+]/kg)2.111.73
(1.71–2.63)(1.52–2.05)
Mg+1(cmol [p+]/kg)0.30.24
(0.28–0.33)(0.22–0.26)
K+1(cmol [p+]/kg)0.190.12
(0.17–0.23)(0.11–0.14)
SAR (sodium absorption ratio)0.140.12
(0.13–0.17)(0.11–0.14)
Base saturation (%)7674.3
(72.2–81.2)(72.8–76.1)
Organic carbon (%)0.720.38
(0.57–0.88)(0.35–0.41)
Total nitrogen (%)0.070.03
(0.05–0.09)(0.2–0.4)
C/N11.113.7
N (kg/ha)221151.7
(173.5–266.1)(142.5–159.3)
P (kg/ha )8.46.5
(143.6–181.3)(6.1–7.0)
K (kg/ha)223.6162
(198.5–254.1)(143.6–181.3)
Fe (mg/kg)28.920.5
(26.5–31.3)(19.4–21.8)
Mn (mg/kg)18.616.1
(16.7–20.8)(15.7–16.5)
Cu (mg/kg)0.710.52
(0.63–0.87)(0.48–0.57)
Zn (mg/kg)0.530.31
(0.41–0.66)(0.27–0.34)
Bacteria (×105/g)77592.2
(640–920)(81–106)
Actinomycetes (×104/g)53673.4
(470–610)(52–87)
Fungi (×103/g)27253.8
(200–330)(42–65)

Note Number of samples for all parameters= 8; values in parentheses represent the range

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References

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