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Reclamation Council maximizes potential of abandoned mines

Once useless land is being transformed into public parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

By George H. Ryan

Illinois has been a major producer of bituminous coal since the late 1800s, generally ranking near the top in annual U.S. production. The industry has played an important role in the State's economy by providing jobs and contributing to the development of Illinois' railroad system. But in the wake of this prosperity lie thousands of acres of devastated land.


In 1975, the Illinois General Assembly established the Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council to address the serious safety and environmental problems on certain coal-mined lands. These problems typically include gas leaks, mine fires, open shafts, and acid rain and sedimentation.

The Council, under the statutory chairmanship of the Lieutenant Governor, is charged with reclaiming coal mines abandoned prior to August, 1977. That was the effective date of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act which required that all future mine sites be reclaimed by coal operators.

The Act also established a federal reclamation fund consisting of fees collected from active coal operators at a rate of 35 cents per ton for surface-mined coal and 15 cents per ton for deep-mined coal. A minimum of 50 percent of these monies are then returned to the states to fund their reclamation work at abandoned mine sites.

Illinois' efforts

Since 1975, the Council has received more than $40 million to finance reclamation of 260 mine sites, encompassing some 3,000 acres, across the State. In many cases, the Council has collaborated with the communities affected by abandoned mines to develop reclamation plans that complement their needs. As a result of this cooperative effort, once useless land is now being transformed into public parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

At the St. Louis and O'Fallon Mine in Fairview Heights, for example, the Council is working with the City of Fairview Heights to devise a reclamation plan that will provide locations for softball fields, tennis courts and picnic areas.

A portion of the site currently contains a large, steep mine refuse pile which is highly acidic. As in a standard reclamation project, the pile will be graded to a more stable slope in order to prevent erosion and establish vegetation. The refuse will then be covered with soil to further stabilize it.

To keep costs down, the Council will use cover soil excavated on the site, as it typically does. As an added benefit, the excavated area will be finished into a three-acre fishing lake.

The graded and covered pile will be seeded with a variety of acid-tolerant grasses, legumes and prairie plants, all of which require low maintenance. Once vegetated, this area will remain somewhat sensitive and will likely be used for wildlife habitat, foot paths, a prairie planting area and small picnic sites.

Other relatively flat portions of the mine site will lend themselves well to more intensive uses such as softball fields, tennis courts and larger picnic

Illinois Parks and Recreation 19 May/June 1986

areas. This area will be covered with an additional foot of soil, and will be seeded with grasses and legumes to develop a denser turf.

Finally, the Council's reclamation plans provide for grading and drainage excavation which will enable the city to construct an access road and parking areas in the future.

Other projects

This approach has been taken with other abandoned mine reclamation projects as well. With reclamation of the Livingston and Mt. Olive Mine in Livingston and the Dering Mine in Eldorado now completed, those communities are developing the sites to include picnic areas and athletic fields.

The Council also completed reclamation of the Buffalo Rock Coal Company Mine near Ottawa in 1985. Working with the topography of the land, the Council designed and sculpted five large earth effigies representing animal species native to Illinois.

This 200-acre area will soon be developed by the State Department of Conservation (DOC) to include trails and picnic areas. It is expected to be open this fall as part of the Buffalo Rock State Park. The project has sparked nationwide interest as one of the largest earth sculptures ever built and is expected to become an attractive landmark for tourists.

These projects represent a trend which the Council intends to continue in the years ahead. By working with local communities, the Council will maximize the potential of reclaimed mines and, in doing so, will help make more land available for public parks and wildlife habitat.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George H. Ryan is Lieutenant Governor of Illinois, and serves as chairman of the Illinois Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council.

Work on the Buffalo Rock Coal Company Mine (shown above in its original condition) was completed last year. A catfish (below) was one of five large earth effigies sculpted on the 200-acre site. The area is expected to open this fall as part of the Buffalo Rock State Park.

(Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Silica Company Foundation.)

Illinois Parks and Recreation 20 May/June 1986

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