Environmental restoration project looks toward the future

When the seeds of the Powell River Project were planted more than 30 years ago, there was scant science on how to best restore lands disturbed by coal mining, much less any longevity of scientific research on the subject.

For more than 30 years, researchers have been working in the coalfields in Southwest Virginia to find ways to reclaim the landscape and return it to a natural state.

For more than 30 years,
researchers have been working in the coalfields in Southwest Virginia to find ways to reclaim
the landscape and return it to a natural state.

Three decades later, the Virginia Tech project has not only yielded groundbreaking research on how to restore natural processes to landscapes in southwestern Virginia coal country, it has also produced evidence that has led to new reclamation practices that help repair the natural environment around the country. Now a new generation of scientists is examining issues including stream reconstruction, invasive species, microbial ecology, and carbon sequestration, among others.

The Powell River Project Research and Education Center is an 1,100-acre site in Wise, Virginia, owned by long-term research sponsor PVR Partners L.P. It has been studied by Virginia Tech researchers since 1980. Research has also occurred at other mine sites throughout Virginia’s coalfields and beyond.

“The research that has gone on at Powell River since 1980 has led to some of our nation’s most important discoveries in mine restoration,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the Virginia Tech College of Natural Resources and Environment and chairman of the Powell River Project’s board of directors. “We are not only building upon this great work, but we are also looking ahead to tackle emerging challenges in this vitally important field that advances the science of sustainability.”

Over the years, a cadre of interdisciplinary scientists from Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, College of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as others working at the site, have broken new scientific ground on everything from forestry and soil reconstruction to water quality and the creation of wildlife habitat.

“In terms of integrated mined land reclamation research, the Powell River Project’s mix of investigators is the best in the world,” said W. Lee Daniels, a crop and soil environmental sciences professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who started working on the project 33 years ago as a research assistant. “Without a doubt, this is the longest continually and intensively monitored mine reclamation research site in the world.”

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