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Southwestern Indiana has a heritage of both agricultural production, and coal mining. A 1999 report presented to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry noted that "Indiana (58%) ranks second only to Illinois (59%) in its percentage of prime farmland... making this agricultural land base a very valuable resource." Farming and farm products contribute significantly to the Indiana gross state product (GSP). Of the 6.5 million tons of cargo shipped from Indiana's three ports in 2002, grain accounted for 35%, and coal was second at 25%. Throughout southwestern Indiana, mining and agriculture are inextricably linked and the Division of Reclamation ensures that proper balance is maintained.
According to the 2002 Census of Agriculture, there are 15,058,670 acres of farmland in Indiana. Of these, 2,655,822 acres (17.6%) are located in the coal mining region of Indiana. According to Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) estimates, approximately 53.4 percent of the total land area in the coal mining region of Indiana is considered as "prime farmland". Prime farmland soils are considered to be the best or most productive of all soils. Soil, and its productive capacities, is a critical natural resource that can not be replaced, and therefore must be protected.
Before mining, operators compile a variety of data to determine pre-mining site conditions. This includes maps and other documentation of current and historical land uses, vegetative types, soil characteristics, productivity, drainage patterns, and crop yields. This information establishes the baseline for soil productivity that the operator must achieve once mining is complete and the land restored. This information also will be used to calculate performance bond amounts.
Once mining begins, specific steps are taken to ensure the protection and long term integrity of the soil. In some cases, the soil is picked up ahead of active mining, taken to the back side of the pit where mining has been completed, and replaced immediately. This is referred to as "contemporaneous reclamation." If the soil will not be used immediately it is stored or "stockpiled." These soil piles are marked with signs identifying specific soil type, and seeded with a vegetative cover. This provides protection from wind and water erosion.
During final reclamation, soil is replaced in order of horizon. Prime farmland must have a minimum of 48 inches of topsoil and subsoil, and non-prime farmland a minimum of 18 inches of topsoil and subsoil. Precautions are also taken to reduce compaction while achieving uniform and stable thickness to support the approved post-mining land uses. It is graded to "approximate original contour", drainage controls and waterways are reestablished, and then seeded for protection against erosion.
The Division holds a portion of the performance bond until the approved post-mining land use is fully and successfully accomplished. This is measured by bushels per acre of a row crop like corn or beans, tons of hay per acre for pasture, or tree or shrub growth for fish and wildlife or forestry. All of these are measured over a period of years and multiple growing seasons or harvests.