A Tale of Two Mines

The Stellarton and Springhill coal mines illustrate how modern reclamation takes excellent care of the environment and how historical mines and quarries, unfortunately, often failed to do so. Stellarton’s modern mine is being beautifully reclaimed and hosts a track facility and the town’s water tower. The historical Springhill mine’s waste bank has been burning for six decades.

One of the biggest challenges we face as an industry is misconceptions rooted in historical mining practices that we agree were not good enough. No industry took proper care of the environment in prior generations and mining was not an exception. However, modern mining is completely different. It is a sophisticated, science-based business that takes excellent care of the environment.

For example, before getting operating permits now, companies must get government approval of reclamation plans and post reclamation bonds (money in escrow, basically) that ensure funds are available to properly take care of sites.

Today’s standards and regulations are why the modern Stellarton coal mine is fixing subsidence issues caused by 200 years of pick-and-shovel underground mining, including many bootleg mines, and stabilizing the land so it can be used for development. It is also creating jobs for Nova Scotians and providing fuel to Nova Scotia Power. Stellarton's water tower and the Pioneer Coal Athletics Field are built on parts of the mine that have already been reclaimed.

Unfortunately, historical practices led to a very different outcome at the former Springhill coal mines, where mining started in 1872 and ended after the 1958 “Springhill Bump” that resulted in the deaths of 74 miners.

Over many decades, the Springhill mines built up a waste bank southwest of the town that included low-quality coal, various types of rock, clay and other materials. For example, when digging tunnels and shafts, rock was extracted that needed to be removed from the mines, so it was added to the waste bank.

By the time the mines closed, the waste bank was estimated to contain about 1.7 million tons of material, according to a 1974 report. The waste bank was triangular in shape and covered about 40 acres. It was about 1,600 feet long and its sides were 2,000 feet in length. Its average height was 26.4 feet and its maximum height was 43 feet.

We call the material “waste” because it was a by-product of the mining, but it still had value. After the mines closed, local residents sometimes dug shallow shafts into the waste bank, searching for coal to heat their homes. Material was also sometimes taken from the waste bank to be used as fill in construction. The waste bank also contains other mine waste materials, such as wood and cloth.

Residents also used the waste bank as a dump area, which added to the quantity of flammable material at the site.

While the Springhill mines were active, access to the waste bank was controlled and it was under constant fire management procedures. Fires are not unusual within coal mine waste banks worldwide and they require constant surveillance to keep the burning in check.

Sometime in the early 1960s, several years after the mines closed, parts of the waste bank started burning. it is not known how the burning started but there are two main ways it could have happened. First, coal can spontaneously combust when exposed to oxygen so air within the waste bank may have triggered a fire. Digging shafts into the bank or extracting material from it would have exposed more coal to oxygen and allowed air to circulate. Second, the fire could have been started deliberately or accidentally by someone taking coal or dumping garbage.

As the burning continued, it produced a material called “red dog,” which is similar to coal ash. The name comes from iron in the coal and rock oxidizing/rusting and turning the material red. (We cannot explain the “dog” reference in the name!). Red dog is used instead of gravel or crushed stone on driveways and roads in coal mining areas, both here and in other countries. In Springhill, locals extracted the red dog for this purpose. Unfortunately, digging into the waste bank would have allowed more circulation of oxygen and thus probably contributed to the burning.

A number of attempts were made over the years to extinguish the fires, starting in the 1960s. However, coal waste bank fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish for several reasons:

The sheer size of a large mine’s waste bank means there can be a lot of combustible material, which makes extinguishing it difficult. There can be multiple fires within a waste bank and each one may need to be handled differently because what works with one may not work with another. It can also be difficult to determine where exactly the waste bank is burning because the burning is usually within the bank, not open flame on top of it, similar to how forest fires can be burning underground even if there is no flame above surface.

Vast amounts of water can be used to extinguish fires but if you have ever poured water on a bonfire, you know that it puts the flames out, but the wood can continue to smoulder for hours due to the residual heat. In the case of a waste bank fire, this residual heat can reignite it after the water is removed.

Trying to isolate the burning material by digging it out with heavy equipment can put more oxygen into the waste bank, and thereby contribute to the burning rather than extinguishing it.

Each attempt to extinguish the Springhill waste bank fire generally failed and it still burns today, at least periodically.

In contrast, the modern Stellarton surface coal mine generates virtually no waste material because its lower-quality coal is blended with its higher-quality coal to produce a final product that meets Nova Scotia Power’s technical specifications. This eliminates the problem of coal ending up in a waste bank. Also, the Stellarton mine is being reclaimed by putting rock extracted from it back into the hole to fill it. (See how this is done in a short video at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/how-reclamation-works).

Today, regulations, reclamation bonds and industry standards mean companies cannot just walk away from inactive mine and quarry sites – operators must reclaim sites properly to ensure they do not leave environmental or safety issues behind. The Stellarton mine is an excellent example of how modern mining and reclamation work.

See the story of the Springhill #1 coal mine, which opened in 1872: https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/springhill-no1

Learn more about the 1956 and 1958 disasters in the Springhill mine: https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/springhill

The Springhill coal mines' waste bank fire in 1974, with smoke rising from it.

The Springhill coal mines' waste bank fire in 1974, with smoke rising from it.

The modern Stellarton surface coal mine. The town's water tower is on a reclaimed part of it.

A cut dug into the Springhill coal mines' waste bank to extract red dog. Picture from 1974.