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FRUITLAND — BHP Billiton New Mexico Coal officials say returning the high desert landscape to the way it was before it was mined for coal is a matter of taking cues from Mother Nature, not the Federal Highway Administration.

On Thursday, BHP officials led a tour at the Navajo Mine along the northern portion of the mine's lease lands to tout the company's approach to returning the land to conditions that are the same or better than they were before coal mining occurred there.

Agronomist Tim Ramsey, who worked as an environmental specialist for BHP for 36 years and now consults for the company, said returning the land to its former condition has been a learning process.

Ramsey said that earlier efforts to reclaim the Chinde mining area involved a "problematic engineering fix" involving "drop structures" that, standing together, create a steel wall of terraced planks to fight erosion. Ramsey said those structures, erected in 2004 and removed in 2012, were appropriated from highway engineers. They require maintenance and have a roughly 20-year shelf life.

But that's the traditional way to reclaim the land, he said.

To counter the problem, BHP's engineers took a more "natural" approach, he said. Called "fluvial geomorphic reclamation," the process involves filling in, reshaping and re-vegetating the land as the landscape would have formed on its own, Ramsey said.

Dan Ware, BHP Billiton spokesman, said Thursday's tour was an effort to "challenge the perception that when a company's done mining, (it) just puts the dirt back in the hole and walks away, and that's never the case (for BHP)."

Ramsey said BHP is dedicated to replicating the landscape's original condition or improving it.

"We created something good ... by accident," Ramsey said.

By diverting water that runs off from nearby NAPI farms into engineered paths that mimic the natural topography, part of the Chinde mining area now sports a wetlands area, home to species of birds, bats and ducks — a visually appealing byproduct of the geomorphic approach, Ramsey said.

The new watery area is surrounded by badlands — largely barren, weather-sculpted hills that make up about 60 percent of the mine's leased area, Ramsey said.

"It's an oasis in the badlands," Ware said.

BHP took over the mine in 1984 from the ownership group that had operated the open-pit mine since 1963. BHP sold the mine in 2013 to the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, or NTEC. BHP is managing the mine for owners NTEC until the end of the year.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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