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What I learned about the coal mines of Texas

I just participated in something that, as a teacher, I could not have learned in a classroom or for that matter, taught in a classroom until now. Let me explain.

A week ago, I attended a teacher workshop with the Texas Mining and Reclamation Association (TMRA). We spent five days at the North American Coal lignite mine in Hallsville, Texas, where the focus was on natural resources and the environment.

Every summer TMRA offers five different all-expenses paid workshops for Texas teachers to help better educate students about the availability, importance, development and use of our natural resources. During week-long sessions, teachers tour mining facilities, visit reclamation areas and participate in hands-on labs with the objective of returning to the classroom and providing students with real-world, problem solving activities – such as designing a surface mine, restoring land or reclaiming water. These hands-on activities are designed to help students use critical thinking skills, while applying earth science facts to real-life situations. The workshops are designed to be used in grades 4-12 and all activities are TEKS and STAAR correlated.

Heading into the coal mine was an eye-opening experience

I am a middle-school science teacher from Dallas, Texas, who enjoys life-long learning and sharing that knowledge with my students, friends and family. I teach science and geology and have a fascination with the beauty and richness of our natural resources and how they can be sustained for all of us, especially those who love to get out there and enjoy the outdoors. Whether biking, hiking, camping or just taking a walk, I marvel at the vastness and variety of the Texas landscape. My natural enthusiasm for this bounty makes me want to share it with others. So I was very curious about what TMRA had to teach about mining in the state of Texas that I so love.

In the end, I was very surprised and informed on what I was able to learn through hands-on classroom instruction and visits to the actual mine, in this case lignite, which is a form of coal.

Here’s what I took away from the TMRA Teacher Workshop:

I walked away with a deeper understanding of the geological process in coal formation, an up-close look at the mining process and great labs to use in my classroom. My biggest takeaway, however, was the reclamation process and the importance of coal energy in Texas, specifically that:

  • Texas is the 11th largest power market in the world.
  • The energy sector contributes $172 billion annually to the Texas economy.
  • Texas is the largest lignite producer and the 6th largest coal producer in the United States.
  • Removing coal from our energy mix is against our nation’s economic interests and security.
  • The Railroad Commission of Texas (RCT) regulates the reclamation process.
  • Permits to mine an area require a baseline data collection on the soil, cultural resources and flora/fauna of the area; this permit has to be renewed every five years.
  • RCT requires the mine to hold a bond on every acre that is leased to mine.
  • The reclamation process takes a minimum of 12 years to be released back to the landowner. The mine must apply for bond release and be approved for release by the RCT.
  • The mine must maintain and monitor the health of the land until it is released back to the landowner.

Bottom line is the coal mining industry is a very misunderstood. You must educate yourself on the mining process from beginning to end and the role coal energy plays in the energy mix in Texas for providing electricity. After all, don’t you enjoy a cool house during the height of our Texas summers and heat during the wintertime when we need it? I know I do, and now I know a bit more about where this necessary energy comes from.

 

 

3 surprising things I learned about mining this week — so far!

This week I have had the opportunity to learn about the surface mining industry through a TMRA Teacher Workshop at the North American Coal Sabine Mine in Hallsville, Texas. Before this week, I honestly did not have an opinion or stance on the mining industry because I really did not know much about it.  I can honestly say now, the mining industry is a misunderstood industry.

For the last four days, our group has had virtually unlimited access to all areas of the lignite surface mining process at the North American Coal Sabine Mine.  The Sabine Mine staff  and TMRA instructors have been very gracious in educating us on the mining process, the conversion of coal power to electricity at the power plant, and the science behind how coal is formed and found by geologists.

The 3 main things I have learned so far are:

1. The North American Coal Sabine Mine is called a mine-to-mouth operation.

Mine-to-mouth is when the coal (mine) is mined right next to the power plant (mouth) and converted to steam energy, which is then converted to electricity.  This type of operation eliminates the coal having to be transported great distances to be used for energy use.  The power plant, Southwest Electric Power Company, provides energy for over 530,000 customers in East Texas, Central and Northwestern Louisiana, Western Arkansas and the Panhandle area of Texas.

2. It’s not coal; it’s lignite.

There are four grades of coal (from highest to lowest): Anthracite, Bituminous, Sub-bituminous, Lignite.  The four types are graded by the the amount of BTU (British Thermal Unit) value : Anthracite has 12,910 BTU while Lignite has 6900 BTU.  A BTU is a measure of heat energy. Lignite is more accessible because lignite veins are relatively close to the surface and eliminates underground tunnels.

3. Once an area has been mined, the area then goes through reclamation.

During the reclamation process the topography of the land is returned to pre-mined contouring. Either native grasses, trees or water features are added after the contouring and soil has been restored.  The North American Coal Sabine Mine has replanted  8,000,000 trees since 1985! The Mine monitors the health of the reclaimed land until the state will release the land back to the owner.

While this only skims the surface of what I have learned so far this week, these are very important and misunderstood facts about surface mining in Texas.

Resources and the environment

I leave today for the 5 day teacher workshop with TMRA.  The title of the workshop is “Resources and the Environment”.   This domain of science, Earth science, has always held my interest, both personally and professionally.  My degree is in Environmental Studies and the main concentration of my degree is in geologic studies. Plus, I have a personal interest in geology. So it is a win-win workshop for me!

After looking over the agenda, it is sure to be a week of non-stop learning. Which I am super excited about!  Activities/labs include a density lab, contouring activity, weathering activity, sorting and sedimentation, building an aquifer, soil lab, and many more.  Topics include  what is coal, geologic processes, mining 101, ground water and mining, soils.  On top of all that goodness, we go on a tour of the mine, power plant and a reclaimed area tour.

I am looking forward to walking away with a deeper knowledge about Earth’s natural resources and then transferring that knowledge, and my experiences from this week, into my classroom.  Historically, on the 5 grade and 8 grade Science STAAR test,  natural resources and specifically the formation of fossil fuels, has always been a low performing standard.  It is through workshops like this teachers can add more “tools” to their “toolbox” when teaching these standards.  m.coal

 

 

Brace yourselves, summer is coming…

Summer…. ahh yes it is finally here.  Only an educator can truly appreciate this season- summer.  What does summer mean to an educator?  It means not having to wait until lunch or planning period to go to the restroom, no papers to grade, no tests to give, no weekly faculty meetings.  It also means it is the time educators can reflect, recharge and then begin to prepare for the next school year.

Contrary to popular belief, educators do not get “3 months of vacation”.  It may seem as though we are “off” but really, we are not.  During the summer months educators are reflecting on what went right the previous year and what went wrong, what do I need to do differently next year,  what strategies am I going to implement right away, and then there’s the required professional development hours.  Yes, educators are required to complete a set number of hours for professional development.

This year my hours for professional development will be spent at a week long teacher workshop funded by Texas Mining and Reclamation Association (TMRA).  TMRA funds these workshops throughout the summer for teachers at different mining facilities in East and Central Texas.  These workshops help bring awareness to the mining  of natural resources in Texas and allows teachers to bring  this concept alive in the classroom.

I will be visiting and learning about lignite coal mining at the Sabine Mining Company in Hallsville, Texas.   I am very excited about this opportunity! I am already thinking about how I am going to bring this learning experience back to my classroom.  Stay tuned for updates about my experience!

Enchanted Rock, you had me at rock

I have always been fascinated with rocks.  When I was a kid we lived in Colorado during the summer so that my sisters could take ice skating lessons.  I spent my days riding my bike and collecting rocks.  I would bring back home to Dallas boxes of rocks. I would wash them and sit on the corner of my street and try to sell them.  Alas, I was quite unsuccessful with my rock sales but that did not deter me from my blossoming interest in rocks. Rocks ROCK!

Fast forward 20+ years and enter Ms. Wood, the middle school science teacher.  Science in middle school is integrated, which means I have to know about a lot of different domains of science.  Of course the domain I am most fond of is Earth science.  Whenever we would get to the geology unit at first I would hear “rocks are boring”, “what’s so special about a rock”  (imagine that in the most surliest voice imaginable from a 12-14 year old).  I would tell them rocks are not boring, rocks tell us a story.  They can tell us the age of that specific area, what the environment was like & often times if humans made use of the resource.  By the end of the geology unit most of my students agreed with me, rocks are pretty cool.

Which brings me to my first Texas State Park, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, 14 miles north of Fredricksburg, Texas.

Location of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Location of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Enchanted Rock has an estimated age of one billion years, making it among the oldest exposed rock in North America.

Here’s the backstory on the geologic history of Enchanted Rock:

“Enchanted Rock is visible in the distance to the north as a broad, round pink dome. Enchanted Rock is part of the Town Mountain Pluton which was emplaced into the Packsaddle Schist about 1.2 billion years ago. It is a series of three exfoliation domes of which the largest is Enchanted Rock. After roughly half a billion years of erosion, the pluton was exposed during the Cambrian Period. At various times in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic, the area was inundated by transgressing seas and sediments were deposited across the granites. Feldspar- rich sediment in nearby basal Cretaceous units indicates that the granite was again exposed in the late Mesozoic. The area was subsequently covered in part or fully by Cretaceous seas and sediment, and finally reexposed by the current Tertiary and Quaternary Erosional cycle” http://www.geology.sfasu.edu/TASGuidebook.pdf

*Pluton- a body of intrusive igneous rock that is crystallized from magma slowly cooling below the surface of Earth

Geologic Timeline of Earth
Geologic Time Scale of Earth

Enchanted Rock is a batholith (igneous intrusion that extends deep into the Earth’s crust) that formed in the Grenville orogeny (mountain building) and assembly of the first supercontinent, Rodinia (formed 1.1 billion years ago).  http://www.earth.northwestern.edu/people/seth/Export/midcontinent/rodinia.pdf

Rendering of supercontinent,  Rodinia
Rendering of supercontinent, Rodinia

From the image above you can make out distinctive land features of the North American Continent, such as Florida, Canada, and Mexico.  The outline illustrating the lower state boundary of Texas is shown as well.

To give you frame of reference as to how massive the Grenville Orogeny was, in present time fragments exist from Texas (Enchanted Rock) all the way through the Appalachian Mountains to the Adirondacks.

1 billion years later this is our evidence of this spectacular time in Earth’s geologic history:

View of Enchanted Rock from the bottom of Summit Trail
View of Enchanted Rock from the bottom of Summit Trail

As you go up the trail, which I must add that the trail is nicely marked, you begin to see a change in the landscape.  It goes from shrubs and cactus:

Nopales Cactus
Nopales Cactus

To granite with areas of lichen and plant life:

Lichen an organism that helps to break down rock into soil and sediments
Lichen
an organism that helps to break down rock into soil and sediments

To the weathered pits that form vernal pools from rainfall:

IMG_0043

Vernal pool formed in a weathered pit
Vernal pool formed in a weathered pit

Evidence of the powerful weathering and erosional forces of water:

IMG_0038 IMG_0037 IMG_0044

The hike up to the Summit is about 3/4’s of a mile long and makes for a nice cardiovascular workout! The view from the Summit is breath taking:

Almost to the summit and just in time for sunset
Almost to the Summit and just in time for sunset
Crepuscular Rays from the summit
Crepuscular Rays from the Summit

I do hope you have a chance to visit this beautiful area of Texas at least once in your life.

IMG_0031
At the bottom of the Summit
From the Summit
View from the Summit

Where the rubber meets the road

After going through a difficult time recently and feeling like I had completely diverted from the person that I truly am, I came up with the brain child the other night to rediscover my true passions in life- nature, science and education, by visiting as many of the amazing state parks we have in Texas and sharing about the flora and fauna that can be found in them.  I know, I know, Texas Parks and Wildlife already has that information available at your fingertips.  But why not read it from the perspective of a:

1. Texas public school educator

2. Nature nerd

I am a proud native Texan.  Texas is incredibly unique in the ecoregions found here: desert, plains, forest, ocean.   We also have: 54 State Parks, 4 State Forests, 1 State Historic Site, 2 National Parks, 4 National Forests, 1 National Historic Site, 1 National Historic Park, 10 National Wildlife Refuges, 2 National Recreation Areas, 1 National Seashore

pwd_mp_e0100_1070ac_6

(image courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife)

My first stop will be the Hill Country:

images

(image courtesy of http://myrod.com/blog/road-trip-texas-hill-country-13a/)

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