PSC eliminating public hazards near abandoned Wilton mining area

Posted August 2, 2016

Known for its rich mining history, Wilton, North Dakota, is still seeing action due to the lignite mining activity that occurred in the area – some of it 100 years ago. While driving along Highway 36, southeast of Wilton, one will see workers sporting hunter orange vests and hard hats operating drill rigs, cement mixers and pumps, but with little construction in eye’s view.

 
The Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Division of the Public Service Commission of North Dakota is focusing on the Wilton Mining Area to conduct a large underground mine drilling and grouting project. Bill Dodd, assistant director to the AML Division with the PSC, said contractors intend to pump approximately 7,500 cubic yards of grout into underground mine voids, which would be equivalent to filling two Olympic swimming pools. The majority of this pumping will be dispersed underground along Highway 36 in order to reduce risks of dangerous abandoned mine collapse.

Joan Breiner with the North Dakota Public Service Commission oversees a grouting project at an abandoned underground coal mine southeast of Wilton. This summer, the PSC is pumping grout underground to fill voids left by underground miners nearly a hundred years ago. The project is part of the Commission’s Abandoned Mine Lands division.

Joan Breiner with the North Dakota Public Service Commission oversees a grouting project at an abandoned underground coal mine southeast of Wilton. This summer, the PSC is pumping grout underground to fill voids left by underground miners nearly a hundred years ago. The project is part of the Commission’s Abandoned Mine Lands division.

Joan Breiner, AML Division project manager at Wilton, explains the grout is mostly comprised of cement, fly ash, sand and water and then pumped into the ground to fill empty spaces left when the coal was removed. For every project performed by the AML Division, bids are solicited from drilling and grout contractors and then awarded to the lowest bidder. Money to fund the PSC’s Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation program comes from a federal reclamation fee that has been assessed on all coal that has been mined in the United States since the late 1970s.

 
In the early 1900s, the town of Wilton was the focal point for lignite mining until the 1940s. Coinciding with a railroad that was constructed from Bismarck to Wilton by General William D. Washburn, the Wilton Coal Mine opened and began operating what was known at the time as “the largest underground lignite mine in the world.” By 1910, the mine operated with 240 workers and produced 140,000 tons per year.

 
While that amount of production was enormous for its time, it pales in comparison to today’s surface mines. Currently, the state boasts five surface mines. In 2015, the mines produced nearly 29 million tons of coal – all of it was consumed in the state by the power plants and synfuels plant. In addition, the mines pay a fee to the federal government that is returned to the North Dakota Public Service Commission for reclamation of abandoned mined lands.

 
About a mile and a half east of the original Wilton mine entrance, a second large underground mine was opened – known as Wilton Mine #2. Between the two mines was a family-owned mine, the Lind Mine, that also produced and sold lignite.

 
Although the Wilton mines were technically one in the same entity, this new entrance allowed workers to utilize locomotives and underground mine tracks to transport lignite coal products. This area of the mine also utilized filtration fans, electrical undercutting machines, automatic hauling cages and electrical lighting directly powered by the lignite coal that was being produced by the mine itself. Due to the expansion of the mine, the population of Wilton grew twenty times larger by 1915 with more than 1000 inhabitants.

 
By 1946, the Wilton Mining Area had expanded its underground mining efforts to nearly 1,500 acres with more than 20 other underground and surface lignite mines nearby, which is why the PSC feels the area is a high priority within their division at this time. Although this area may not be producing energy from lignite mining sources anymore, it is currently home to wind turbines, another source of energy.

 
The AML Division of the PSC is tasked with eliminating public hazards resulting from areas mined in North Dakota prior to 1977. The majority of projects conducted by the AML since the 1980s in Wilton included filling in emergency and non-emergency sinkholes caused by underground mine collapse, with emergency projects taking first priority.