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UW Student Helps Wyoming Company Learn How to Use WYCEHG Equipment

September 20, 2013

James St. Clair is not your typical summer intern. The University of Wyoming doctoral student actually helped a company learn a new way to conduct its work.

St. Clair, majoring in in geology and geophysics, spent his summer demonstrating to employees at Lowham Walsh how to use geophysics equipment to assist the engineering and environmental consulting company with its work at abandoned coal mines.

The Idaho Falls, Idaho, native helped the company assess eight abandoned coal mines, located primarily in Johnson and Sheridan counties. Abandoned mine lands represent a significant risk to public health and safety, in addition to causing adverse environmental impacts to water quality and soil stability.

“Part of my job was to be a geophysicist for them,” says St. Clair, who worked out of the company’s Lander office but spent a good deal of time in the field. “I showed them how geophysics can be used to characterize the subsurface.”

St. Clair demonstrated the use of the Super Sting R8, an earth resistivity meter that injects an electrical current into the ground to help image the coal mines. St. Clair accompanied Lowham Walsh employees who were experienced at observing and assessing coal mines.

“They showed me the ropes,” he says.

Making Connections

UW’s collaboration -- pairing UW students with environmental companies for internships -- is part of the outreach component of a five-year, $20 million grant award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Wyoming’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The grant has enabled the Wyoming Center for Environmental Hydrology and Geophysics (WyCEHG) to acquire unique instrumentation for field and lab studies in hydrology and near-surface geophysics, as well as to hire experts in the use of those instruments.

“A significant goal of WyCEHG is to help connect UW students, researchers and technology to the private sector in Wyoming and the region,” says Steve Holbrook, director of WyCEHG and a UW professor of geology and geophysics. “Some of our expertise and equipment -- especially in near-surface geophysical imaging -- are useful to environmental engineering firms, but lie outside their typical in-house experience.”  

“We offer companies a simple exchange: They hire our students for a summer and, in return, they get free access to our equipment for use on their projects, which might help their business model,” Holbrook continues. “ It worked really well this past summer. James did a fantastic job at Lowham Walsh, showing how electrical resistivity data can detect underground voids in abandoned mine lands.“ 

Lowham Walsh -- with offices in Gillette, Lander and Bismarck, N.D. -- specializes in applied hydrologic science, civil and environmental engineering analyses and design. The company is a leader in water management for the petroleum industry throughout Wyoming and the western U.S., and is a growing force in the civil infrastructure consulting engineering community, according to its website. 

Andy Strike, general manager of Lowham Walsh based in the Lander office, says he was contacted by Holbrook for support during the NSF grant application process. While Strike was a master’s student in structural geology at UW, Holbrook was one of his professors.

“I have always been looking for ways to collaborate with the Department of Geology and Geophysics, and make sure that students interested in pursuing a career in the state of Wyoming gain exposure to local firms that can help make that happen,” Strike says. “Not every job in oil and gas requires Texas residency.”

James St. Clair records the dimensions of the subsidence pit at the Piney Creek Mines site, located 15 miles north of Buffalo. The pit is obscured by the tall grass. (Kaitlin Oress – Lowham Walsh Photo) Mine Inspections

St. Clair used the earth resistivity meter over four of the mines to detect voids or open space. The equipment picked up depth and lateral dimensions of the mines quite well, he says.

“When the thickness of the overburden is less than the width of the mine cavity, there is potential for subsidence, which is the lowering of the ground surface,” St. Clair says.

Lowham Walsh’s research into near-surface voids is funded by the Office of Surface Mining, through the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) Abandoned Mine Lands Program.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 is the primary federal law that regulates the environmental effects of coal mining in the United States. The law created two programs, one to regulate active coal mines and a second for reclaiming abandoned mine lands.

“Because of the earth resistivity equipment, we formed a very good idea of the geometrical layout in the subsurface of how voids on site were spaced, how they were propagating, and used this data to determine a safe way to reclaim the sites that dealt with the individual site issues,” Strike says.

Based on the image findings, St. Clair says Lowham Walsh will design a reclamation plan for those mines, and construction companies would have the opportunity to bid on those reclamation jobs.

“It was a good experience to see what it is like to have a job. You do your work and report your findings,” St. Clair says. “It is a little more stressful than school.”

Future Collaborations

If Lowham Walsh’s contract is renewed with the state, the company intends to use electrical resistivity equipment again, Strike says.

“Whether it be purchased or rented remains to be seen,” he says. “Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) may also be useful at other locations.”

“It was a really good opportunity. I think it will be good for UW students, especially geophysicists” in the future, St. Clair says. “There are fewer opportunities for geophysicists outside the oil industry than in it. Maybe some more firms will learn these tools that are available to them.”

St. Clair will present the results of his investigation at the National Association of Abandoned Mine Lands Program in West Virginia Sept. 22-25.

“We hope the information collected this summer will also be useful to James’ completion of his research,” Strike says. “I intend to continue this collaboration with UW, and hope all the candidates will be as proficient and knowledgeable as James was this summer.”

“This program is something that we hope to expand to more companies in the region next summer,” Holbrook says.

James St. Clair, a UW doctoral student in geology and geophysics, sets up earth resistivity equipment at the Antelope Valley mine site, located 3 miles south of Gillette. St. Clair interned with Lowham Walsh this summer. The collaboration is part of UW’s $20 million EPSCoR water grant. (Brek Ibach – Lowham Walsh Photo)

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