A cautionary tale about how room-and-pillar mining destroys Illinois farmland

Larry Skinner, a farmer from near Newman, Illinois, located in the east-central region of the state, is still dealing with environmental damage from a coal mine under his farm that closed in the 1980’s. Specifically, his farmland is subsiding due to the room-and-pillar mining leaving the ground very weak, especially above where “rooms” created by the mining. Much of Skinner’s land is now unsuitable for farming due to the areas where the ground has sunk being too wet or flooded, and Skinner has to pay out of his own pocket to fix the subsidence, because the mining company that closed the mine under his land all those years ago has long since changed hands.

Skinner’s story, which you can read about here, serves as a cautionary tale about how room-and-pillar coal mining turns some of the most fertile farmland in the entire world into low spots where rainwater collects and renders the land unsuitable for growing crops like corn and soybeans. While room-and-pillar mining is designed to prevent subsidence, in practice, areas where “rooms” have been created by mining between “pillars” left untouched by the mining are very prone to subsiding and causing environmental damage.

Despite the damage that room-and-pillar mining has done to farmland in east-central Illinois, one mining company, the Indiana-based Sunrise Coal company, wants to put even more Illinois farmland at risk of serious environmental damage. The proposed Sunrise Coal mine, which would be located in southwestern Vermilion County, would consist of a room-and-pillar mining operation under fertile farmland, as well as a 500-acre, above-ground coal processing plant and rail transfer point. Additionally, ponds would need to be constructed to store liquid slurry waste generated from the washing process used to remove impurities from the coal. In addition to the risk of farmland subsidence associated with room-and-pillar mining, there’s additional environmental threats associated with the proposed mine, such as coal dust ending up on crops and farmland from the processing plant, as well as the risk of the slurry ponds leaking and causing groundwater to become contaminated. The environmental risks associated with the proposed mine are so severe, Sue Smith and her husband, who own a 1,600-acre farm near the site of the proposed mine, have refused to sell the mineral rights to their land to Sunrise Coal.

As someone from a community, located about 13 miles or so to the northeast of the proposed mining site, that was built around coal mines in the early 20th century, I’m not completely against coal mining. However, there are significant environmental risks associated with the proposed room-and-pillar coal mining operation in southwestern Vermilion County that could cause long-term environmental damage that would negatively impact the area for decades, if not permanently.

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