Orphan Wells & Abandoned Mines Project

historic photo of a miner in front of a coal seam

A historic photo of a miner in front of a coal seam.

Southeast Ohio has a long history of mining for coal and drilling for oil and gas. This extractive legacy has left many long-standing marks on the land, especially from the time period before government regulation.

The Forest Service, alongside with the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, has long worked to address the environmental and safety problems that resulted from this historic legacy. This work has included plugging orphaned wells, closing mine openings, rehabilitating acid mine drainage impacted streams, fixing altered hydrological drainages, and more. All of this work is expensive, and the amount of funding available has not matched the need.

But thanks to recent, unprecedented Federal funding, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to plug orphaned wells and remediate abandoned mineland hazards at a much faster rate. Our Orphan Wells & Abandoned Mines Project aims to capitalize on this new funding and continue our mission to restore southeast Ohio’s landscape.
 

The Problems

Orphaned Wells

Since 1859, thousands of oil and gas wells have been drilled throughout southeast Ohio. The early decades of oil and gas extraction were completely unregulated, with environmental and operational regulations only coming about in the mid-1900s. During the unregulated era, companies would often drill a well and run it until it stopped producing oil or gas. Once the well stopped producing, these companies would simply abandon the well. These “orphaned wells,” as they became known, currently have no person or company that’s accountable for costs to plug and reclaim the well.

New Straitsville, Ohio historic photo showing an abundance of oil and gas wells

A historic photo of New Straitsville, Ohio, showing an abundance of oil and gas wells.

Orphaned wells pose a danger to visitors, our staff, the environment, and our climate. Orphaned wells are essentially holes that lead hundreds to thousands of feet into the Earth. They can leak oil and brine, contaminating the soil and water around them. Orphaned wells also can release methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. No matter how you look at it, orphaned wells pose a threat that needs to be addressed.

orphaned well that is polluting the surrounding landscape with oil

An orphaned well that is polluting the surrounding landscape with oil.

Today, hundreds of orphaned wells dot southeast Ohio’s landscape—including throughout the national forest. A portion of these orphaned wells are known and mapped, while others have yet to be discovered.

Abandoned Mines

Southeast Ohio’s coal reserves have been mined as early as the 1810s, with the first 150 or so years being completely unregulated. The first coal mines were drift mines that excavated into the sides of hills, but the industry soon moved to elaborate underground mines by the mid-1800s. Surface mining—or strip mining—began to replace underground mines from the 1930s onward. Southeast Ohio’s coal industry peaked in the 1970s and has since greatly declined.

historic photo of a coal strip mine

A historic photo of a coal strip mine. Once this strip mine closed, it was eventually added to the national forest for reclamation efforts.

Although the coal mining industry is all but gone from southeast Ohio today, its historic legacy still impacts the landscape. Abandoned underground mines run below the land, and abandoned strip mines scar the surface. This legacy has led to many long-lasting environmental and safety hazards across southeast Ohio, including throughout what is now the national forest.

Nearly 22,000 acres of the national forest were once mined underground, primarily in the Athens Unit. Nearly 20,000 acres of the national forest was surface mined, with an even split between the Athens Unit and the Ironton Unit.

subsidence leading to an abandoned coal mine

A subsidence leading to an abandoned coal mine.

Openings to underground mines can be found all throughout the region. Some openings are the old entranceways miners used. Others are ventilation shafts that brought fresh air into the mines. And some are subsidences, which are essentially sinkholes where the roof of the mine collapsed, pulling the surface down into the mine.

These mine openings, and the abandoned mines they lead to, are extremely dangerous. Abandoned mines are filled with all kinds of hazards—from poisonous gases to the ever-present threat of collapse and other dangers. These mine openings allow people to access the abandoned mines, either on purpose or by accident (such as falling down a ventilation shaft). Either way, a person is at extreme risk of serious injury or death once inside.

Sometimes, a stream will flow into one of the mine openings, disappearing into the underground mine. When this happens, the stream is said to have been “captured.” Stream captures are extremely dangerous and environmentally harmful. As water flows in, it can erode the opening to the underground mine, making it larger and more dangerous. Stream captures can also potentially result in acid mine drainage. Once a stream enters an abandoned mine, the water starts to pick up dangerous heavy metals while also becoming very acidic. This polluted and toxic water is called “acid mine drainage.” Eventually, that acid mine drainage has to go somewhere. Sometimes it seeps into springs and groundwater sources. Other times it flows back onto the surface, pouring into creeks and rivers and harming the life living in them.
 

The Opportunity

There is an ongoing need to address the environmental, health, and safety effects associated with abandoned mines and orphaned wells in the national forest. With help from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management, we have been plugging orphaned wells and remediating abandoned mineland hazards for over 25 years. While these efforts have led to great progress, there is still a lot more work to do.

Reclaimed area part of the Upstream Rock Run Restoration Project

This area was once abandoned mineland with a captured stream leading to acid mine drainage. The area was reclaimed in the 2010s as part of the Upstream Rock Run Restoration Project.

In 2021, Congress increased the funding that was available for plugging orphaned wells and remediating abandoned minelands. This targeted funding is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and can help us continue our efforts to improve southeast Ohio’s landscape at a much faster rate than we would otherwise be able to do.
 

The Project

In 2021, we proposed a project called the Orphan Wells and Abandoned Mines Project. This project involves plugging orphaned wells, closing openings to mines, and re-routing stream captures.

Roles & Responsibilities

This project is a joint effort between the Forest Service and several partners. Each entity has its own role and responsibilities.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service – Administers the National Forest System, specifically the natural resources on the land surface.

U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management – Administers Federally owned minerals and helps coordinate reclamation and plugging operations.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources – Administers the State Orphan Well Program and Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Programs.

To implement the reclamation and remediation efforts this project entails, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Bureau of Land Management, through contractors, will perform the actual the reclamation work. The Bureau of Land Management will also provide funding and technical assistance. The Forest Service will design criteria to protect natural resources during the reclamation activities and provide access. The order of the work will be prioritized based on the severity of environmental, health, and safety risks as well as available funding.

orphaned well that is leaking gases

An orphaned well that is leaking gases, most likely methane. Orphaned wells like this would be higher priority than those which are not actively leaking gases or other contaminants.

Plugging Orphan Wells

Orphaned wells will be plugged. This is typically accomplished by filling the borehole with concrete and capping it near the surface. This prevents oil, gas, salt water, or other fluids and vapors from escaping into the atmosphere, ground, or water. It is often necessary to re-drill the borehole and clear out obstructions before the well can be plugged. This could require grading around the site to create a flat space for a drill rig, often known as a well pad.

orphaned well in the Marietta Unit in the process of being plugged

An orphaned well in the Marietta Unit in the process of being plugged.

Safety Closures

Access from the surface to abandoned underground mines will be closed off. Openings could be sealed by installing gates, using foam, using natural materials such as on-site soil or off-site fill, capping with concrete and rebar, or other similar methods. Other dangerous mining features, such as highways, will be remediated by restoring the surface contour.

mine opening closed using a bat gate

A mine opening closed using a “bat gate.” The bars in a bat gate allow bats to freely move in and out of the mines that they use for roosting or hibernation, while stopping larger animals and humans from entering the dangerous mine.

Re-Routing Stream Captures

Captured streams will be remediated by closing the mine opening, redirecting the water back to the surface, and reshaping the surface to ensure reconnection to existing streams. Segments of stream channels may be re-routed, and impermeable liners may be installed to stop water from infiltrating into a mine. Culverts or similar features may be installed to accommodate increased surface flow if necessary.

stream capture in the process of being remediated

A stream capture in the process of being remediated.

Other Details

Over the next 15 to 20 years, it is anticipated that 200 orphaned wells could be plugged, and 100 abandoned mine sites closed. This would result in approximately 680 acres of collective disturbance. On average, each orphaned well is expected to require about 1.6 acres of disturbance while abandoned mine closures would average about 3.6 acres, though each individual site would vary.

You can read all of the environmental assessment details at this link.
 

The Process

The Orphan Wells and Abandoned Mines Project underwent the National Environmental Policy Act process (NEPA process). This process began with sharing what the proposed project involved and why it was needed, soliciting public feedback, conducting an environmental assessment, soliciting further public feedback, and then having the responsible official—in this case the forest supervisor—making a draft decision and rationale for that draft decision. The documents that were produced during this process can be found on at this link.

In November of 2022, the forest supervisor approved the Orphan Wells and Abandoned Mines Project by signing the final decision. The decision, along with the rationale for it, can be viewed here.
 

Next Steps

With the final approval of the Orphan Wells and Abandoned Mines Project, the actual on-the-ground reclamation work can begin.

Currently identified hazards will be remediated and reclaimed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Bureau of Land Management based on their ranking matrix, which takes into account severity of environmental, health, and safety risks posed by the hazards and the funding available. If new orphaned wells or abandoned mineland hazard sites are identified, they may be addressed in a prioritized manner based on the risk they pose.