Lignite was extracted industrially from the 19th century to the first half of the 1900s from a large number of underground mines. This mining work drove the development of San Giovanni Valdarno’s steel industry. In the 1930s, a lignite-fuelled thermoelectric power station was also built but it was destroyed when the area was engulfed in fighting during Second World War.
The Santa Barbara thermoelectric power station was built around the mid-1950s. Open-cast mining was commenced to fuel it using modern excavation machinery as huge quantities of earth had to be moved in order to remove the layers covering the lignite seam. Mining finished for good in 1994. The two thermoelectric units of the Santa Barbara Power Station continued to operate using oil as fuel until a new combined cycle unit was installed in 2006. It is still in operation today. It was built to the strictest environmental standards and is fuelled by natural gas with an overall output capacity of 392 MW. The old units were decommissioned and later demolished.
A total of 44 million tonnes of lignite were mined over the course of the mine’s career. Even as the mining continued, however, work also began on making the area safer. This included partial filling-in of the mining cavity which was up to 100 metres deep. It was in these areas that the Castelnuovo, Allori and San Donato lakes were created. The areas were renaturalised, encouraging the spontaneous development of riparian vegetation and fish and wildlife repopulation. The rehabilitated areas were also planted with 241 hectares of new forestry.
Following this huge amount of renaturalisation work, some parts of the mining area, covering approximately 1,300 hectares in total, were spun off from the mining title and ceded to local authorities and private owners. At present, in compliance with the definitive and agreed project, the executive projects are yet to be completed i.e. the environmental rehabilitation work on the remaining area which is in the region of 1,600 hectares in size.