New years are always a time for transition and renewal, and boy, do we need some renewal after the last year! Now is a time to look forward with hope and commitment to seeing better days ahead.
We have worked hard this past year not only to keep the machine of government humming, but to move faster and farther down the road of progress than before. Some notable accomplishments include:
Shortly after in-person office work was curtailed in March, we used electronic tools previously developed to move seamlessly into a new remote workplace.
Electronic permitting and reporting have been in place for several years
allowing continued interaction with the regulated community with very few hiccups.
Division field inspectors were able to extend their reach with remote work processes for
collecting data and recording information on our databases.
Staff implemented new tools for prioritizing workloads, inspection frequency, and monitoring
conditions in areas of higher concern.
Board of Oil, Gas and Mining hearings are being held remotely for both Board members and participants. Meetings have been held in a hybrid in-person/electronic format for several years, so the transition was relatively simple.
Many have questioned the need to return to a fully in-person workplace as we have seen
benefits of more efficient communication between managers and staff, employees working
within their own flexible schedules, and the improvements in air quality. At some point, we will likely return to a hybrid telework scenario with fewer employees onsite, but still deriving the benefits of remote work.
Recognizing that we are also faced with a transition of governmental administration in
Washington DC, the new year brings substantial uncertainty for the extent of new federal
policy and the impact of those changes on Utah’s economy and quality of life. The commitment
from Division staff to continue meeting our responsibilities is unwavering. We will continue to ensure
responsible development of our underground energy and mineral resources while protecting
the public health, safety and welfare and preserving the environment. We like to think that our
efforts will continue regardless of who is in White House, and our processes for continuous
improvement will forge ahead.
While this past year presented us all with challenges and unforeseen circumstances, Division staff moved forward completing projects and adapting to new ways of doing business. Below are a few of the highlights from 2020.
Coal Program staff helped coal operators navigate the regulatory path nimbly and efficiently to continue their work. Skyline Mine operators determined that additional power was required for continued operations of their long wall miner. A corridor had previously been approved, however a larger corridor for the above ground powerline was needed, requiring additional permitting. Due to time constraints with the onset of winter, staff worked closely with the operator to get the additional permitting finalized so the powerline corridor could be completed.
Deer Creek Mine Reclamation of the Deer Creek mine was completed in late 2019. During 2020 spring runoff, several rills and gullies began to form on the reclaimed slopes. The operator and program staff immediately mobilized to the site and began working through the regulatory issues associated with repairing the erosion. A rogue culvert unknown during the operation of the Deer Creek Mine was identified as the issue. On-site field visits and conference calls with federal agencies were conducted to address regulatory issues and allow the operator to continue repair work before winter.
On March 20, Division staff was notified that operations at the Lisbon Valley Mine in southeastern Utah had shut down. The Division subsequently issued an order for final reclamation to be complete by September 30, 2021. Over the next several months program staff spent many hours overseeing reclamation operations and reviewing the mine plan and reclamation cost estimate. In January 2021, the operator submitted an adequate bond and obtained Division approval to re-start operations.
In December 2019, staff issued tentative approval of the revised Notice of Intention (NOI) for the Benjamin Quarry in Utah County. This decision was appealed informally to the Division by concerned area residents and then formally to the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, which upheld the Division’s decision to approve the NOI with certain conditions. One issue of the appeal included the concern for petroglyphs around the mine.
Staff continue using tablets to record inspections and are working to expand the efficiencies by developing an inspection prioritization application. The tablets help inspectors keep track of inspection frequency, which is a major aspect of determining inspection scheduling.
Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program
Despite a slow and unusual start to the construction season due to the uncertainties presented by COVID, the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program (AMRP) completed two coal and six non-coal abandoned mine reclamation projects this year.
Coal reclamation consisted of the Clear Creek Refuse Reclamation Project and the Hiawatha Culvert Maintenance Project located in Carbon County. Non-coal projects closed a total of 170 hazardous abandoned mines and completed maintenance at 30 previously closed mine openings. Projects included the completion of the Spor Project in Juab County that began in the fall of 2019, the White and Deer Flat Project in San Juan County, Phase I of the Willard Peak Project in Weber County, the Westdip Bat Cupola Project in Tooele County, and the Buckmaster-OIG Project in Emery County. Maintenance projects included the Jacob City Maintenance Project in Tooele County, and the Temple Mountain Maintenance Project in Emery County.
The Hiawatha Culvert Maintenance Project was located about 14 miles southwest of Price at the historic Hiawatha mine. In 1914 mine operators built a culvert over a stretch of Miller Creek to accommodate a road crossing. The 200-foot culvert is constructed of large sandstone blocks and features a rare and striking barrel vault top exhibiting fine craftsmanship representative of the Italian and Greek immigrant stonemasonry of the early 20th century.
In 2012, the Seeley forest fire destroyed much of the vegetation on the Wasatch Plateau above Hiawatha. As a result, storms washed trees and rock debris down the watershed. Flooding washed out extensive portions of the century-old culvert walls and AMRP staff feared that the unsupported block culvert walls would collapse into the creek. At best, this would dump sediment in the creek; at worst, the creek could be dammed and risk a catastrophic flood event Besides losing a remarkable cultural feature and road access across the creek, structural failure of the culvert would have a significant effect on water quality and downstream fisheries.
Last September AMRP staff contracted with Strong Solutions, LLC of Fairfield, Utah to stabilized the damaged culvert by replacing the washed-out portions of the walls and floors with reinforced concrete. Immediately downstream of the culvert, a log jam was removed, and a deep gully head cut that threatened to undermine the culvert was stabilized by building a rock drop structure with stairstep basins to allow fish to migrate upstream.
Coal mining at Hiawatha began around 1909 and continued until 1992 with extensive operations in four canyons and in multiple coal seams. The company town of Hiawatha, with a peak population of approximately 1,500 residents in the 1940s, supported the operations.
Oil and Gas Program
The Division’s Oil and Gas Program successfully launched the Field Inspection Prioritization application that uses specific criteria to generate and implement data-driven decisions. Staff has worked with the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC) to develop and implement the application designed to display in a spatial and report form which oil and gas sites should be inspected according to various inputs.
All oil and gas wells were given a priority rating from one (highest priority) to three (low priority). Prioritization is based on operational factors such as compliance issues and history, age of the well and how long since the last inspection. Geographic factors include well proximity to surface water, groundwater, human population density and wildlife habitat.
The program has been operational since January 2020 and has already helped our inspectors increase their inspection efficiency. The field application allows real time data collection that is automatically uploaded to the database saving inspectors time and reducing input errors. The program empowers program staff to consistently make decisions leading to reduced risk and more effective regulation through timely inspections.
This is an effective tool that will give management and staff the ability to make data driven decisions ensuring protection of Utah’s resources, while promoting responsible development.
The Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining is accepting nominations for the 2021 Environmental Excellence Awards now through Wednesday, February 19. Environmental Excellence Awards recognize operators who go above and beyond what is required by regulation. Innovations in environmental technology, environmental improvement to active mine sites, outstanding final reclamation projects, and community outreach are eligible for consideration. Nomination form and more information is available at https://www.ogm.utah.gov/includes/2021CallForNominations.pdf
Chris Roher is a senior reclamation specialist with the Division’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. He started with the program as a graduate school intern in 1982 and moved to a full-time division employee in 1983.
As a senior reclamation specialist, Chris manages projects from the initial abandoned mine inventory to construction and closure. This planning process can include budget estimating, National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) compliance, procurement of construction and professional services, construction inspection, and contract management. Chris has been project manager for 49 construction contracts totaling $9.4 million, including reclamation at 100 coal mine sites an installation of over 1,880 non coal closures.
Chris enjoys his work for numerous reasons including being able to hike and explore areas of the state. With Utah’s vast mining history, his work has taken him every corner of the state. He is also proud that the AMR has an exemplary record of thoughtful project design and execution in sensitive environments that has earned the respect of land managers.
Chris has a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology/Environmental Studies from Butler University and a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences from Indiana University.
When Chris is not working, he enjoys watching independent films, world travel, and global cuisine and music.