Preliminary results from the first part of a two-part investigation of the stability of highwalls in open-pit coal mines in the Fort Union Formation of the western Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana indicate that these highwalls are subject to time-dependent deformation. Field investigations and laboratory physical-properties tests of coal and overburden rocks suggest that several factors influence highwall stability. Some of these factors are rebound of overconsolidated rocks, desiccation, water, orientation and spacing of fractures, and strength and deformation properties. Factors of safety for a typical highwall in the study area (calculated by the finite-element method) may be less than 1.0 when open fractures are present and the highwall has degraded. Although it is concluded that most open-pit mines in the Fort Union Formation within the study area have generally stable highwalls, these highwalls do deteriorate and become progressively less stable. Because of this, postmining failures are common and could be critical if mining were delayed and then resumed after a period of several months.
The second part of the investigation will utilize field measurements of rock-mass properties and instrumentation of actively mined highwalls to obtain data for comparison with the results of the initial investigation. Because the height of highwalls will increase as the more shallow coal is exhausted, these data will also be used to predict the behavior of slopes higher than those presently found in the western Powder River Basin.
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USGS Numbered Series
Stability of highwalls in surface coal mines, western Powder Ridge Basin, Wyoming and Montana