Abandoned IL Coal Mines Pose Health, Environmental Complications WSIU Public Broadcasting | By Terri Dee

Published June 24, 2024

New legislation in Congress would hold coal producers accountable for cleaning up the mine sites they have abandoned, including tens of thousands of acres in Illinois.

Inaction by some coal companies has led to so-called “zombie mines,” sites no longer producing coal but leaving behind damage which can pose risks to people, wildlife and the local economy. The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed by Congress in 1977 required coal companies to operate more responsibly and clean up their old sites.

Amanda Pankau, director of energy and community resiliency for the Prairie Rivers Network, said too few have done so.

“There’s an estimated 32,500 acres of coal mines in Illinois that require cleanup and only 6,600 of those are partially reclaimed,” Pankau reported. “We’re talking about coal mines that were mined after 1977, where there should be a coal company responsible for the cleanup.” Three bills in Congress would update federal law to strengthen regulations, fund the cleanup of zombie mines and create timelines for doing so. In the meantime, despite warnings to stay out, vandals or explorers have been injured or even died from drowning in water pits and quarries, or falling into old mine shafts.

According to the Bureau of Land Management, zombie mines exist in every state. Pankau pointed out the coal industry’s overall decline has created more opportunities for companies to shirk their cleanup responsibilities, and there are many issues to address.

“Not enough money. Reclamation is not happening in a timely manner. Bankruptcies, unexpected water quality issues,” Pankau outlined. “All sorts of things that are causing reclamation to stop or not occur.”

In addition to tougher state laws, Prairie Rivers Network wants to see reforms to the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to meet future challenges, including funding cleanups when a company has gone bankrupt.