Company Plans To Strip Mine Oil Sands In Northwest Alabama
WOLF SPRINGS, Alabama – A company’s plan to strip-mine oil sands near north Alabama’s Tennessee Valley has residents in several counties concerned about declining property values and environmental impact.
MS Industries II LLC, a mining company based in Wolf Springs, has acquired more than 2,500 acres of land in Colbert, Lawrence and Morgan Counties. The company’s executives said they intend to use proprietary technology to recover bitumen from sandstone. Petroleum-based bitumen is a primary ingredient of asphalt, and the overwhelming majority of the material that is mined will be used for road paving, CEO Steven Smith said last week. Bitumen can be processed and refined into oil.
The material will be surface-mined from pits that typically will range in size from 35 to 40 acres and will be processed in a plant in Lawrence County. The company expects to mine two to three pits at a time with each pit having a production life of up to five years, COO John Christmas said. The project would directly create several hundred jobs with a broad range of wages beginning at $15 an hour, Christmas and Smith said.
The company can’t begin mining until the Alabama Oil and Gas Board writes regulations that would govern the process and a public comment period on the new rules is held. Smith and Christmas said they could begin work early next year, if the regulatory process goes as expected.
Residents in the counties where the company has paid as much as $5,000 per acre for land have filled public meetings to express concerns about possible impact to water quality and airborne waste. Those whose farms in the rolling hills have been in the same families for more than a century also said they fear that mining will permanently scar one of the most beautiful areas of the state.
“Who wants to live next to a strip mine?” said Sheree Martin, an attorney and Samford University professor whose family has owned land in Colbert County for generations.
Jim Lacefield, a retired University of North Alabama geology professor who lives on Wheeler Mountain in Colbert County, said that heavy equipment used in strip mining compacts the soil, permanently altering the way water reaches the water table and making it unlikely that the land – even after restoration – can support row crops or grow trees.
“It’s almost like a desert,” he said. “There’s always going to be a loss in productivity of the land.”
Lacefield, who is the author of the book “Lost World in Alabama Rocks,” said the mining is likely to affect the quality of the water he draws from his own well. The land “will be impacted for many generations to come,” he said.
Company executives said that residents’ concerns are overblown, because most are assuming that the mining will be similar in scope and impact to tar sands mining in Canada and Utah. That, they said, is an unfair comparison. MS Industries intends to recover bitumen exclusively through open pit mining, eschewing the more controversial method of injecting steam into wells to liquefy it and pump it to the surface.
And, Christmas said, the company’s pits will be far smaller than tar sands strip mines and will be mined using smaller and lighter equipment, allowing the land to be completely restored after a pit plays out.
“What we’re doing is not even remotely similar to what they’re doing in Canada,” Smith said.
The company intends to tap a vein of bitumen that runs from just south of the Tennessee River to Birmingham. The sandstone that includes the material, commonly called Hartselle Sandstone, is black in color where bitumen is present and is at or near the surface of the Earth in Lawrence, Morgan and Colbert Counties. It’s deeper below ground as it runs to the south and west, but is at or near the surface again just south of Birmingham’s Red Mountain, geologists said.
Charles Haynes, a retired University of Alabama geologist who runs a mining consulting business in Franklin, Tenn., said that the bitumen the company wants to mine is significantly different from the material mined in Canadian tar sands. Bitumen in tar sands is malleable, and is processed into what amounts to dirty oil. The Hartselle Sandstone bitumen is basically rock, he said, and can be used for road building even without being processed.
The sandstone bitumen can be mined safely and with minimal environmental impact, and has been surface-mined in Alabama periodically over the past 100 years, he said. “It’s done routinely across the U.S.,” he said. Still, Haynes said, mining projects don’t always unfold as expected and any processing of the material once it’s recovered will create a waste stream.
Smith and Christmas said that processing is necessary because of the level of bitumen in the sandstone, but that their newly-developed method – the details of which they declined to disclose – will create virtually no waste. The company has invested $20 million in developing the technology and holds “more than 22” related patents, they said.
A search of records with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office found no patents or pending patents under the names of MS Industries’ executives or the name of the company. Smith and Christmas declined to disclose the names under which the patents are registered, saying they prefer to keep details of the technology secret.
Smith and Christmas said that Timothy Wallace, CEO of Trinity Industries, a $5.6-billion industrial conglomerate based in Dallas, is among their biggest investors. Efforts to reach Wallace to confirm his interest in the project were not successful.
In his state-of-the-state address earlier this year Gov. Robert Bentley announced in broad terms his support for plans to tap into the state’s bitumen, saying there are 7.5 billion barrels of oil in northern Alabama in the form of oil sands.
Efforts to reach the governor for comment regarding this story were not successful, but in July of 2013 he announced a compact with Mississippi in which the two states will jointly study the resource with the goal of supporting its recovery.
“We all see the future promise of alternative sources of energy. However, these sources will not be able to fulfill all of our needs for a long time,” Bentley said in a prepared statement at the time. “That means fossil fuels will continue to be an important source of energy for the foreseeable future. We simply must continue to develop our North American fossil fuel resources in a safe and responsible manner.”