When employed in the private sector of the petroleum industry in the 80s and 90s, I learned valuable business lessons about industry extractive operations that have remained with me throughout the years. I realized that my role as a company engineer revolved around three objectives: 1) increase the productive output of oil and gas wells, 2) reduce operational costs as much as possible, and 3) minimize future long-term liabilities to the company. These objectives were important for the cash flow and profitability of the organizations for which I worked, and their basis in corporate economic value was obvious.
As I transitioned into the public sector with state government employment, I learned that as a public servant, it was still important for me to provide value to my employer, the general public. But because of the diverse interests represented by the public, there was less clarity in a statement of objectives. I had to modify my fundamental economic lessons learned in the private sector to fit the expectations of the public.
Therefore, the first of the aforementioned objectives, rather than “increase production” could be translated to “foster, encourage, and promote the responsible development of mineral resources” to maximize the value of those resources to the general public for their good and for their greatest quality of life. The second objective of “reducing operational costs” could be restated as “minimize the public health impacts or the environmental impacts” of ongoing operations by ensuring compliance with established rules. And the third objective would translate from “minimizing future long-term liabilities to the company” to “minimizing future liabilities to the state or its subdivisions”.
The Division endeavors to achieve the last objective by ensuring that operating companies are complying with appropriate risk management rules including establishing appropriate financial assurance to provide the state with funds in the event those companies default. Both our Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program and our Oil and Gas Orphan Well Plugging activities also work to address legacy problems that occurred prior to the time of strident regulatory oversight on such operations.
And finally, efforts are ongoing to require accountability of responsible parties when well sites or mines fall into a suspended or non-productive state of operations. In this manner, we continue to provide value to the general public of a sound regulatory framework for the extractive industries in Utah.
Hydrologist and Project Manager Keenan Storrar along with Coal Program staff oversaw the reclamation of the Horizon coal mine, a bond forfeiture site in Carbon County. It took roughly three months to remove the coal mine’s five-acre footprint and re-contour the site to match the surrounding landscape. Reclamation involved demolishing and sealing the portals, re-establishing the stream channels through the facility and parking fill pads, and applying topsoil, mulch and seed to the final contoured slopes.
From the time the mine ceased operations in 2012 until the bond was forfeited in 2017, the site had fallen into disrepair. Coal waste covered the facility and loadout areas and was piled in berms around the site. The temporary portal seals installed when the mine was idled, had been broken into and posed a significant hazard to the public. Most of the culverts and ditches at the site were blocked and no longer functioning as designed causing significant erosion across the site. While the sediment pond at the lower end of the site captured most of the sediment erosion and suspended coal fines, the pond was nearly full and the owner was no longer sampling and reporting discharges, a direct violation of the Clean Water Act.
The site sits at the junction of Jewkes and Portal canyons. Once the portals were demolished and sealed, over 20,000 cubic yards of fill were excavated and backfilled against the surrounding cut slopes to reestablish the channels at the bottom of the canyons. Topsoil recovered from stockpiles was placed on the final grade of the hill slopes above the rip rapped hardened channels. Straw mulch was spread and incorporated into the soil by pocking the surface. Pocking is the process of creating large divots in the soil that aid in soil stability and water retention. Two seed mixes, riparian and shrub/grassland, were spread just before the area received the much needed rain and snow that fell in early October. Hopefully in the spring the site will have a high germination success rate and the native plants will help the site blend into the surrounding landscape.
Coal Program Reclamation Specialist Priscilla Burton initiated working with the Utah State Prison horticulture program to grow native plant starts that will be planted next fall for additional vegetative cover. More information will follow on this beneficial program and opportunity.
Division staff hosted a booth at the annual STEM Fest held at the Mountain America Expo Center. STEM Fest focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and is geared towards educating 4th through 10th grade students. It is an opportunity to highlight what the Division does through hands-on activities with the goal of inspiring students to pursue higher education and careers in STEM.
This year the booth focused on oil production in Utah. Staff provided oil samples, including black and yellow wax, taken from various sites in Utah. Students could smell and touch the wax, which many kids compared to shoe polish. Core samples were on display to illustrate how scientists locate where to drill for oil. The big hit was two large drill bits used for oil extraction. Students were amazed that the bits could drill through rock and how deep they can go into the Earth.
The Division’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program (AMRP) received an award for work completed on the Wolf Den Fire reclamation project in the Uintah Basin. The National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs (NAAMLP) publicly recognized Utah for the exemplary physical safety hazard mitigation in the reclamation of abandoned hard rock mines. AMRP staff were presented with the nation’s highest achievement at the NAAMLP annual conference in Williamsburg, Virginia. Steve Fluke, AMRP manager and AMRP Archaeologist Seth Button attended the banquet and accepted the award.
In 2012, a lightning strike in the Wolf Den Range resulted in a range fire at the Black Dragon gilsonite site. The seam, old timber supports and gilsonite pillars, and waste piles of gilsonite on the surface caught fire. The heat resulted in secondary surface fires, and since hot gilsonite is ductile, like asphalt, as well as flammable, streams of melting gilsonite ran like ribbons of lava.
The Utah AMRP chose a closure approach using prepared sediment as fill. The fire was snuffed and open trenches were filled using material obtained from the borrow area and treated with water. This closure addressed not only the hazard of the slow-burning fire and flows of gilsonite, but hazards from smoke and physical hazards.
Earth work started in July 2015 and was completed in October 2018. The total construction cost was $146,335. Mark Wright served as the OGM project manager.
Seth Button is an archaeologist and project manager for the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program (AMRP). He has been with the Division for a year and a half. As a project manager, he is responsible for leading projects from the identification of abandoned mines through compliance with state and federal regulations to construction/reclamation. As an archaeologist, he helps ensure that all program projects comply with applicable state and federal laws governing the treatment of cultural resources.
The program promotes public safety by reclaiming abandoned coal and hard rock mines throughout the state. AMRP works within the framework of the National Historic Preservation Act to take into account the effects on our projects on biological and cultural resources. Seth helps program project managers and their partner agencies accomplish their mission while protecting the physical remains of Utah’s history.
According to Seth, the best part of his job is helping protect both members of the public and Utah’s natural and cultural resources. As an added benefit, he gets to see a lot of historic mine sites. Seth works with great colleagues in the Division and with other public servants in the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).
Seth is originally from Western New York. He received his Bachelor of Arts from Dartmouth College and completed his graduate work at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Most recently, he worked as a consultant in the Intermountain West and Pacific Northwest.