DONIE — Five homeschoolers pick fist-size garlic cloves, green jalapeños, strawberries, squash and kale on a breezy Thursday morning in late June. They’re volunteering at a local food garden where bright orange marigolds attract bees from a local keeper’s hive.
The 1-acre garden has yielded about 10,000 pounds of produce for six food pantries since it began harvesting in April 2022. Texan by Nature, which manages the garden and was founded by former First Lady Laura Bush, estimates it has served approximately 2,000 people per month in Limestone, Freestone and Leon counties.
Located in Freestone County about 60 miles east of Waco, NRG Dewey Prairie Garden is a part of a massive effort to restore a 35,000-acre lignite coal mine, which stretches mainly into the town of Jewett and used to fuel NRG’s Limestone Electric Generating Station, a 1,688-megawatt power plant. An NRG spokesperson said the coal plant began running on cleaner-burning coal from Wyoming in 2016.
That’s when the company halted mining locally after more than three decades.
Debbie Glaze, a lead gardener for Texan by Nature, says it’s hard to imagine the garden was once a coal mine. The company has set aside 9 more acres to expand the garden, which was started as a pilot project.
“You wouldn’t think that this could happen,” Glaze said. “I think it is amazing that the ground is actually growing all these vegetables after all that mine digging.”
The Jewett mine’s manager, Michael Altavilla, said he hopes the garden can show how the industry can work with local communities for everybody’s benefit.
“The mining industry has always been seen like we’re the bad guys, we’re destroying the Earth,” Altavilla said. “We want to take people out and show them this form of reclamation, a second purpose, not only mining the coal for energy, but utilizing the ground afterward.”
Company set aside $112 million to restore mine
Lignite was first mined in Texas during the 1850s and was produced primarily from underground mines, but declined in the early 1950s as the oil and gas industry grew in the state. Around the same time, companies began surface mining — which includes strip mining and open-pit mining — to provide fuel for power plants and the concrete industry.
The new mines harvested lignite coal, a form of soft coal that often lies close to the surface. Lignite mining led to bulldozing forests, burying streams, destroying wildlife habitat and leaving the ground contaminated with arsenic, lead and other toxins considered unsafe for human exposure after the mines closed.
In 1975, the Texas Legislature authorized the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees Texas’ oil and gas industry, to regulate surface coal mining. In 1977, the federal government created a fund to help pay for cleaning up old mines and required companies to restore the land to its prior condition after closing a mine.