Mining Expert Navigates Changing Industry

April 2014

Mining Expert Navigates Changing Industry


Four decades in the mining industry have culminated in this latest challenge for J. Steven Gardner, P.E.: adjusting to the changes the natural gas boom has brought to Appalachian coal.

The NSPE member’s career has been distinguished. He is president and CEO of ECSI LLC, a consulting company based in Lexington, Kentucky, focusing his attention on mining, natural resources, energy, and environmental issues. Gardner also provides expert testimony and technical investigations on mining issues; has published and edited mining books; and was elected 2015 president of the Society of Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration (SME) in February.

Several years ago, the PE realized that coal was on the decline, especially in his region. “I think everybody has been amazed at the magnitude of natural gas that we have found in this country,” he says. “That’s led to a decline in the demand for coal…[and] allowed even more severe environmental restrictions to become feasible.”

Since then, Gardner has been refocusing his company’s efforts—exploring mining in other areas of the US and internationally with different processes and looking into other materials: industrial minerals, aggregates, gold, copper, and iron.

ECSI formed several years ago from a partnership between the company Gardner had founded more than 30 years prior, Engineering Consulting Services Inc., and international consulting group Ecology and Environment Inc.

The partnership with E+E was a natural fit, the PE says, because that company’s leadership believes that mining is still important and can be done responsibly. That’s a philosophy that Gardner has held throughout his almost 40-year career. The projects that he’s most proud of, he explains, demonstrate that.

For instance, several years ago his company looked at the impacts of mining on all the major watersheds of eastern Kentucky as well as the effects of other human activities such as road construction, development, oil and gas production, and logging.

“Some very interesting results came out,” he says—including that many of the impacts people attribute to mining were actually due to other activities such as development along streams. The results helped develop methods for better water quality and revegetation, and alternative land uses.

“While I have always been the first to acknowledge that mining has had its share of problems, many of the problems are the result of lack of knowledge,” says Gardner. “We have to learn from the mistakes of the past and improve our practice.”

Gardner grew up on a tobacco farm in Kentucky. He initially earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and joined the former Bethlehem Steel Corp. to work on mine reclamation. When he first entered an underground mine, he was hooked—“totally fascinated with the underground environment.” He later returned to school for a master’s in mining engineering with a certificate in environmental systems.

Mining history is a passion for Gardner. One of his most enjoyable projects, he says, was the 10-year effort to turn a former underground coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky, into a tourist attraction. Gardner and his team rehabilitated the mine to make it safe for the public—including performing an environmental assessment and inspection of on-site structures and then designing a roof control plan, rib (side-walls) stabilization, and water drainage system. Gardner’s team also helped design the exhibits, including a rail ride that travels 600 feet into the mountain and tells the story of how the mining technology and community evolved over decades.

The Portal 31 Exhibition Mine won a National Honor Award from the American Council of Engineering Companies in 2010. According to Gardner, Portal 31 reminds people that coal has made the US what it is today, developing the country’s industrial base and helping it achieve world prominence.

He believes that despite the growth of other energy sources, coal will still be an important part of the economy for many decades—if not centuries—for uses beyond energy, such as steel, chemicals, and other products that require carbon.

Gardner continues to work toward the future of the mining industry. Recently, he participated in SME’s effort to reinstate the Boy Scouts’ mining merit badge, discontinued in 1937. The effort aimed to both improve the image of mining in society and to highlight opportunities in the field. The first Mining in Society badges were awarded in February to scouts at the SME annual meeting in Salt Lake City.

And Gardner’s youngest daughter just finished her degree in mining engineering from his alma mater, University of Kentucky. She is working at a gold mine in Nevada and plans to take the PE exam this year.