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story.lead_photo.caption Helen Wilbers/For the News TribuneThe Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ current mine reclamation project covers 8 acres of land behind Westminster College’s Blue Jay baseball field in Fulton. The old mine highwall seen on the left was collapsing and eroding to such a degree it threatened the land owner’s vegetable garden.

Stepping onto the mine reclamation site just off Hickman Avenue in Fulton, it's immediately clear why the landowners called the Missouri Department of Natural Resources for help.

A few yards away from their vegetable garden, a sheer cliff (the mine's former high wall) plunges down into a gulch that was once filled with water. Standing on the brink of the former pond, you can see a giant chunk of rock and soil — topped with a full-grown tree — that recently broke free from the high wall and tumbled into the former pond.

"There was a pretty large rock and some grass that fell off while we were looking at the project," said Austin Rehagen, of the DNR's Land Reclamation Program.

Bit by bit, the high wall was collapsing and imperiling the garden, not to mention anyone who got too close to the edge.

The DNR rated the high wall and pond as Priority 2 hazards — not as dangerous as, say, an open mine shaft right next to a home, but still potentially able to cause injury.

Before the DNR began its work, the area was full of spoils mounds overgrown with hardwood trees and invasive bush honeysuckle. Right now, the 8-acre site behind Blue Jay Field looks even more a mess: the vegetation has been stripped away, leaving mounds of clay-heavy soil, and the pond's empty, its bottom coated with stinking mud. But that's all part of the process, Rehagen said.

"When we're done, you won't believe the difference," Rehagen said.

The contractor, Carl R. Jones Excavating and Hauling of Fredericktown, will push earth all along the 300-foot length of the collapsing high wall, converting it from a cliff to a gentle slope and filling in the hazardous pond.

"You know when you're in the spoils — it cuts like butter," said David Wren, a Carl Jones employee on the job Wednesday.

They'll treat the acidic soil with agricultural lime. And they'll dig a new pond to capture rainwater and sediments flowing through the site.

"(The landowners) are shown the design — we get approval from them before we start," Rehagen said. (The DNR has declined to name the landowners.)

When all that is complete, they'll mulch and seed the area with a mix of native grasses and flowers. Lately, the DNR has been emphasizing how native plants can benefit pollinators and species such as monarch butterflies.

"We'll ask, 'Do you want us to plant milkweed?'" he said, adding that often the answer is yes.

The Westminster Reclamation Project is LRP's 12th in Callaway County since 1985. Funds for this and previous projects come from a surcharge on each ton of coal mined in the United States, as authorized by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. Through the program, the DNR ameliorates hazardous mining sites abandoned before 1977. (The 1977 law requires modern mining operations to do their own reclamation after ending operations at a site.)

Projects addressed by the program range between 1 and 100 acres and can cost up to $1 million, Rehagen said. Many are located in Missouri's old "coal country," the area between Kirksville and Joplin, and other rural areas — it's pretty uncommon for the DNR to be called upon to reclaim a site right in the middle of a town.

Rehagen added even once the Land Reclamation Program finishes with the site, they'll continue to monitor it for erosion and other issues.

"And if the land owners see a problem they'll call us," he said.

For more information about the Missouri Land Reclamation Program, visit dnr.mo.gov/geology/lrp.

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