LA PLATA — Seven years ago when the La Plata coal mine operation closed its doors, leveled gravel roads dug into the landscape, navigating football field-sized coal pits while discarded soil was stacked to heights that blocked view of the mountain-ridge horizon to the north.

Today, the 1,700 acres of coal pits are gone. In their place rest recreated rolling hills and valleys, predominately bedded in native vegetation grown tall enough to scrape the knees of passers-by.

Eight months after completion of an innovative reclamation project on the site, the U.S. Department of Interior has recognized mine owner BHP Billiton's innovative restoration program for its early success.

Bestowing the national excellence award upon the La Plata Mine, one of four sites recognized nationwide, the federal Office of Surface Mining determined the reclamation project went beyond industry standards to return coal mines to the land conditions that existed prior to development when the mine was opened in 1986.

"The high level of reclamation you have accomplished through the operation of this mine is a model for others in the coal industry to follow," Surface Mining Acting Director Glenda Owens stated in a letter informing BHP Billiton of the national recognition, which will be presented in October in Washington, D.C.

The La Plata Mine was closed in 2002 after 16 years of surface coal development that generated about 42 million tons of coal for use at the San Juan Generating Station.


But the 1,700 acres of dirt pulled from the ground before workers reached coal layers had to be returned.

The six-year reconstruction project was completed in November 2008.

"I think they did a pretty good job. They went out of their way to do some extra contours and try to utilize some state-of-the-art technology," said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator with San Juan Citizen's Alliance, a nonprofit environmental protection group. "I think that they're on the right path."

Charles Roybal, legal counsel with BHP Billiton, said the former mine site's success was not a surprise. Rather, it was a result of environmentally conscious redevelopment.

"I think the award recognizes the extra effort and thought and innovation that has gone into that reclamation," Roybal said.

Rather than level the formerly mined ground surface, BHP Billiton worked to recreate the natural hills and drainage valleys of the land to better promote revegetation and wildlife habitation, said Jim Luther, environmental and health services superintendent with BHP Billiton's San Juan Coal Company.

"If we're to achieve zero harm, we'd be putting back in a way that all the animals would come back," Luther said of the reclamation. "We felt the topographic diversity would enhance the possibility of good wildlife population of the area."

Although wildlife rehabitation often is a slow process, the site has begun attracting deer, elk, bobcats and a variety of raptors back to the area.

Higher annual rainfall at the former mine site, located near the N.M. state line, has contributed to the success of the plant reseeding, with native vegetation growing strong in many areas of the former coal mine, Luther said, and the simulated topography also has helped reduce erosion of the reshaped land.

Areas will be replanted where native seeding was unsuccessful or overgrown with weeds, he said. About 15 percent of the 1,700-acre site could require reseeding within the first year. The reclamation site is closed to the public to protect the yearling vegetation.

"Sometimes that first year is a little difficult," Luther said. "By far and away the majority (of the La Plata site) has been successfully revegetated."

The advanced topographic work was the first time such redevelopment was managed on a large-scale project, said Jim O'Hara, the New Mexico Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources coal mine reclamation program manager.

"With that type of reconstruction, you're mimicking nature and nature is trying to create a stable landscape," he said. "Above all, I would say that the San Juan Coal Company has led the way in terms of implementing this as a standard reclamation process."

But the reclamation effort is far from complete. BHP Billiton will remain responsible for the area's upkeep for 10 years to ensure the former mine site's success is not short lived.

After a decade, the state Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources will determine whether the natural redevelopment meets federal and state law requirements. If successful, a $56 million reclamation deposit, required to ensure the land isn't vacated in poor condition, will be returned to the company.

Following the 10-year reclamation, the 1,700 acres will be returned to the federal Bureau of Land Management as a wildlife habitat. Nearly 200 acres of adjacent land formerly used for the mine's business operations were sold to San Juan County for continued industrial development.

Mickey Ginn, a BHP Billiton environmental specialist and former mine engineer who worked the La Plate Mine since the '80s, described the reclamation process as melancholy after seeing a once-vibrant industry return to its roots, with no evidence of the everyday work that occurred for 16 years at the site.

"In the end, it's going to be beautiful (and) sustainable," Ginn said of the reclamation. "That is part of the circle, too."

James Monteleone: