Headed in the Wrong Direction! Longwall Coal Mining in Illinois

Submitted by Jim Babcock Although the burning of coal in the US is in sharp decline, world-wide demand is high and growing and coal companies are buying underground mineral rights.  The number of mines in Illinois increased 23% from 2008 to 2009.  There are plans for sharply increased exports of US coal to Asia.

A group of Chicago area clergy recently toured the coal mining area between Springfield and St. Louis specifically to see the direct impacts of an increasingly popular method of coal mining called “longwall mining” on the people and landscape of this central Illinois farming area.

Longwall mining is a process in which two “room and pillar” tunnels are dug underground. Between these tunnels, which can be more than 1,000 feet apart, large mechanical “shearers” cut the coal from a wall face and drop it onto conveyor belts which carry it to the tunnels and out to the mine opening. Self-advancing hydraulic ceiling supports that protect the shearing area are in place along the wall. As this assembly advances, sometimes for miles, the roof is allowed to collapse behind, and the surface landscape subsides from 5-6 feet.

As the tour members saw, the longwall mining is adding to the strains and pressures that have already been suffered by the people and rural communities during the advance of large scale agriculture. As related by Rev. Dr. Clare Butterfield, Executive Director of Faith in Place and Community Minister at Unity Temple in Oak Park:  “The people with whom we met and spoke were late middle age or older and that was striking. If there are young people left in these farm communities, they didn’t join us. I asked one farmer from the area if there was anyone young still farming, and he said two or three people (meaning in the county) who farm with their fathers. Otherwise they leave. So these communities were in trouble already before the push to expand the mines.”

The land continues to be farmed with corn and soybeans, but in the midst of the farmland are piles of coal at the mouths of the mines. In addition, the processing of coal requires the “washing” away of impurities which include toxins and heavy metals. The by-product is billions of gallons of toxic sludge stored locally behind earthen dams which can rise to a height of 80 feet. Since much of Illinois had to be drained to be farmable, the fact that  subsidence drops the surface over large areas 5-6 feet closer to the water table has a significant effect on local hydrology.

 Even if coal could be mined without harming the environment, the harms it causes by its widespread use in power plants condemns it as a sensible fuel source. On top of emitting 1.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, coal-fired power plants in the United States also create 120 million tons of toxic waste such as coal ash. Coal combustion waste constitutes the nation’s second largest waste stream after municipal solid waste.

 Illinois continues to support the coal industry’s growth with anticipated increases from the current production of 33 million tons of coal per year up to 45 million tons. The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity brags, Illinois is the “Saudi Arabia of Coal” with 96 billion tons of available coal in reserve.

 Instead, we need to support the transition to a reliable clean energy system and end our reliance on dirty coal. A coalition of organizations (including Citizens Against Longwall Mining, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Sierra Club) has formed the Heartland Coalfield Alliance to work on coal mining issues in the Illinois coal basin (which includes parts of Indiana and Kentucky).

 To stay informed about these issues which affect our land, air, and water and to be responsive to them,  partner with Faith in Place and get on their rapid response email list for legislative updates.