The Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council Turns Wastelands into Garden Spots for Wildlife and Recreation
by Dave Ambrose
When the miners moved out, the bats moved into the scores of century-old lead mines dotting the bluffs and hillsides overlooking the Mississippi River west of Galena in JoDaviess County.
Little brown bats, big brown bats, eastern pipistrels and the uncommon King's bat found the claustrophobic mine adits, some of which were no more than crawl spaces, perfect places to hibernate for the winter. Abandoned since the mid-1800s, the tunnels also were believed to be used extensively during the summer by several bat species.
Unfortunately, the mines also attracted adventurous young people who liked to explore the deteriorating tunnels. While no deaths or serious injuries were reported, local officials felt it was only a matter of time before disaster struck.
The problem for the Illinois Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council (AMLRC) was how to address the public safety issue without adversely affecting the bats. Working with natural heritage biologists from the Department of Conservation, AMLRC engineers designed thick concrete closures for the mine openings, leaving small gaps at the top which allow bats to fly in and out. For a larger mine, especially popular with teenage explorers, a metal louver provides access for bats while keeping people out.
The Galena lead mine project is one of the more unusual examples of how the AMLRC and the Conservation Department work together. More typically, the AMLRC reclaims vast acreages of strip-mined lands or coal refuse left behind from underground mining operations — lands which then find a new life as recreational lands or wildlife habitat.
"Just by definition, an eligible abandoned mine site is essentially devoid of habitat," said Tim Hickmann, the Council's executive director. "We usually start out with barren gob or slurry, which are the waste products from working the coal, and end up with gentle mounds supporting a permanent vegetative cover."
The Conservation Department and AMLRC often work together to increase public acreage available for recreation and wildlife habitat. Reclamation of strip-mined lands by the AMLRC contributed to creating the 5,000-acre Banner Marsh State Wildlife Area in Fulton County and 2,300-acre Snakeden Hollow State Fish and Wildlife Area in Knox County.
At Buffalo Rock State Park in LaSalle County, AMLRC sponsored the creation of the unique Effigy Tumuli earthen sculptures. Artist Michael Heizer designed five sculptures representing Illinois River valley wildlife species. Among the sculptures are a 770-foot catfish, a 2,000-foot snake and a 140-foot frog — all of which are gathered on 298 acres of reclaimed mined lands.
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AMLRC activities also have contributed significantly to Kickapoo State Park near Danville, Pyramid State Park near Pinckneyville and Goose Lake Prairie Natural Area near Morris.
"Efforts by the Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council have contributed significantly to public recreation opportunities in Illinois," said Conservation Director Brent Manning, a member of the Council. "Perhaps even more significantly, lands reclaimed by the Council often provide critically needed habitat for Illinois wildlife species. The creation and enhancement of additional acres of habitat is the most positive step I can think of toward conserving Illinois wildlife for future generations."
Throughout the state, virtual wastelands left behind by mining activities have become community parks. Long Acre Park in Fairview Heights, St. Clair County, is an example of how the AMLRC and Conservation Department programs can be orchestrated to create local public recreation facilities.
The AMLRC's 1986-87 reclamation of the St. Louis-O'Fallon mine site added 23 acres to Long Acre Park, bringing the park's total size to 80 acres. In addition to contributing to the aesthetics of the park by eliminating an unsightly gob pile, the reclamation work created a 3.5 acre borrow pond.
The local government applied for and received an Open Space Land Acquisition and Development grant from the Conservation Department to develop the entire 80-acre site. Today, Long Acre Park is one of the most heavily used recreational facilities in St. Clair County, attracting picnickers, joggers and walkers, and baseball, volleyball and horseshoe players.
Many Illinoisans are familiar with the piles of gob or slurry with steep, deeply eroded sides that dot the state's countryside. These piles of coal particles, rock and shale are the waste products left behind by coal sorting and washing operations. Because they are steep and loosely compacted, gob piles are extremely susceptible to erosion. Exposed to weather, they become highly acidic and incapable of supporting plant or animal life. To compound the degradation, acidic runoff devastates nearby plant life and pollutes neighboring streams.
Reclaiming such barren moonscapes and making them bloom again is not an easy or inexpensive proposition. Since 1978, the Council has reclaimed 8,582 acres in 46 Illinois counties. Reclamation costs have totalled about $103 million — or slightly more than $12,000 per acre.
AMLRC contractors use earth movers and other heavy equipment to whittle gob piles down to size and recontour the land to reduce the potential for erosion. Waste materials are then consolidated into a single location and covered with
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a life-giving layer of soil.
"In doing that, we generally create a borrow pond in an area that's already been affected," Hickmann said. "We don't disturb existing farmland — we go underneath the mine refuse."
Once a substrate is established, reclaimers plant trees, shrubs and grasses to stabilize the soil. Nitrogen-fixing legumes and prairie grasses that are resistant to drought are planted to hold the soil in place. If any clearing is required, the downed trees are consolidated into brush piles to maximize the site's attractiveness to wildlife.
"Nearly all our job sites containing coal refuse have acid water impoundments," Hickmann explained. "Usually, we treat that water with hydrated lime to neutralize the acid and release it. Then we cover the waste material in the impoundment and let the impoundment collect fresh water again."
After about a year of work at most sites, an expanse of exploited land has become an oasis of green. In some instances the reclaimed acreage can become recreational land in the form of a state-managed or local park. More often, however, the thin layer of soil covering mining wastes is too fragile to withstand intense public use.
"Many of our sites could accommodate some forms of passive recreation," Hickmann said. "You can't build on them because the fill areas are subject to settling and the buried coal refuse would be detrimental to concrete footings."
Almost inevitably reclaimed mine sites eventually serve as habitat for Illinois wildlife. Deer, upland birds, song birds and other animals are attracted to the gently rolling, newly vegetated landform, while migratory waterfowl and shore-birds gravitate to the newly created freshwater ponds. While providing for wildlife is not the primary goal of AMLRC projects, Hickmann admitted, it is a pleasant fringe benefit.
"It's really gratifying to start with a wasteland, do the design work, get a contractor out there and within a year after it's done start to see deer, rabbits and birds moving in," Hickmann said. "A lot of times, we'll have wildlife moving through before the contractor is off the project."
The Illinois General Assembly created the Abandoned Mined Lands Reclamation Council in 1975 to address serious safety and environmental problems created by abandoned coal mines throughout the state. The Council operates under the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which established reclamation standards for active mines and provided for reclamation of mines abandoned prior to 1977. Funding for the program is generated from a 35 cent per ton fee paid by mining companies on surface mined coal and a 15 cent per ton fee on coal from underground mines.
"An abandoned mine is one that has shut down and for which no responsibility remains for reclamation on the part of the owner," Hickmann said.
Under some circumstances, sites that ceased operation after 1977 may be eligible for reclamation if performance bonds are inadequate or
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unavailable due to insolvency on the part of the bonding company.
While the thrust of the program is toward reclaiming abandoned coal mines, hazardous non-coal sites are eligible under certain conditions. The AMLRC has been authorized through 1999 to devote up to two percent of its annual budget toward reclaiming such sites. Sealing the Galena lead mine shafts and a similar project to close abandoned fluorspar mines in southern Illinois are examples.
By law, the AMLRC is chaired by the Illinois Lt. Governor, currently Bob Kustra. An executive director and the directors of seven state agencies, including Conservation, comprise the Council's membership.
In 1982, the AMLRC, through the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, published a statewide inventory of abandoned mine sites posing major environmental problems and public safety hazards. The inventory identified about 220,000 acres that had been affected by mining activity — 10 percent of which exhibited significant environmental concerns.
"Since then, landowners have called us about sites we didn't know about and the federal guidelines on eligibility have changed," Hickmann said. "Every year, the inventory seems to grow, even though we're talking about mines that stopped operating by 1977."
Averaging about 800 acres a year, the AMLRC has reclaimed close to 9,000 acres since 1978 — about a third of the significantly degraded sites identified by the 1979-80 survey.
Obviously, there is a vast amount of mined lands in Illinois yet to be reclaimed — enough to keep the AMLRC busy for many years. In the meantime, wildlife, people and the environment are the beneficiaries.
Dave Ambrose is the managing editor for the Department of Conservation's magazine, Outdoor Illinois. This article originally appeared in the February issue of the publication.
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Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator