“No Peace and Quiet”
Coal companies plow up central Illinois
July 25, 1980
Coal mining is nearly dead in Illinois, but 40 years ago it was still hale enough to make plans to buy up and lay waste to chunks of central Illinois that lay atop strippable coal seams. Other parts of Illinois by 1980 had learned not to trust the industry's word, but central Illinois landowners happily sold to the coal firms and local governments happily sold out to them.
This version is edited for clarity.
The other day, the New York Times published a brief dispatch from the Associated Press. It seems Supreme Court Justice Stevens had postponed the effect of a June ruling in an Indiana court that would have invalidated parts of the 1977 federal Strip Mine Conservation and Reclamation Act that pertain to the restoration of mined farmland until the full Supreme Court could settle the status of the law once and for all. The story got exactly thirty-four lines in the Times—they don’t do much strip mining on Manhattan, though parts of the Bronx look like it—but it got hardly a line at all around here.
That’s too bad. Illinois has a lot of coal and a lot of prime farmland, and through what looks like a geologic practical joke much of the former lies just below the surface of the latter. Decisions about how, to what standard, within which time span, and at what cost prime farmland will be reclaimed after mining are issues which are likely to be argued about a lot in central Illinois in the next decade.
Central Illinois used to be coal country, which is usually news to the tourists. The No. 5 (“Springfield”) and the deeper, thicker No. 6 (“Herrin”) coal stretch beneath this part of the state like fillings in a continental layer cake. There are still miners alive who remember the days in the 1920s when Sangamon County led the state in coal production, and since 1952 Peabody Coal has been hauling coal out of a hole in the ground near Pawnee and feeding it into the hot belly of Commonwealth Edison’s Kincaid power plant at a rate as high as five million tons per year.
There are those—many of them newspaper feature writers—who recall those days fondly. Coal did mean money and jobs hereabouts; much as state government is today, it was the place where thousands of semiskilled people could make more money than they ever dreamed possible. But coal also meant funerals and broken backs, union fights, midnight ambushes and dynamited coal trains, National Guard scab herders, black lung, falling roofs, poisoned streams, gob piles that lay like bloated whale carcasses beached on the countryside, summer layoffs and winter weeks of never seeing the sun except—a cruel pun—on Sundays. When Springfield’s last big shipping mine closed down in 1952, the newspapers mourned the passing of an era. Instead of mourning, people should have been dancing in the streets.
But that was a long time ago, and now the only time most of us think about coal is when we worry about how to pay our electric bills. But coal is still down there after 120 years of digging, and if the people around here haven’t paid much attention to it, the energy companies have. Coal that was too deep or that sold too cheap to mine can today be mined because both the machines and the money are better.
In 1978 it was revealed that Consolidation Coal, the nation’s No. 2 producer, had bought coal rights to 4,500 acres of Sangamon County land. It was also revealed that a consortium of natural gas companies had bought coal reserve leases on 150,000 acres between. Springfield and Decatur (more than one billion tons in all) which would supply a two- million-ton-per-day deep mine to be operated by the Chatham Coal Co. A year before that, representatives of Chicago’s Commonwealth Edison had announced that ComEd had bought 18,800 acres of land in Cass, Sangamon, and Menard counties since 1969 (most of it through agents), enough to make the company the biggest single landowner in Cass County. Plans remain indefinite, but the likeliest use for the land would be as a home for a mine-mouth electric generating station.
More recently, a small mine has opened in Brown County in an operation which owners hope will eventually recover the estimated 2 million tons of coal under 1,000 acres there. Amax and North American Coal reportedly have been negotiating coal leases in western Macoupin County, and Freeman United has received permits to mine nearly 2,700 acres in McDonough and Schuyler counties. Most recently, Shell Oil announced plans to open a mine to tap the 17,000 acres of coal it owns in Logan County near Elkhart, coal which seems likely to be sold to Springfield’s City Water, Light and Power Department.
Most of these proposed new mines are in parts of the state that have not been intensively mined in the past. But they are unique too in that, unlike most of the mines of central Illinois’s mining heyday, they will be strip mines. I do not mean to say that there has been no strip mining in Illinois’s fertile midsection; perhaps the most heavily stripped county in the state is Fulton, and Knox and Vermilion (where the nation’s first commercial strip mine is said to have opened in the 1860s) have likewise been gnawed at with enough violence that each county has organized guerrilla resistance, although these days aggrieved citizens lob lawsuits instead of grenades.
Indeed, much of the current federal law on strip mining of farmland owes its substance and its inspiration to these dogged fighters who, as has been true of prophets going back to Matthew, have been more honored abroad than in their own country. Battle-tested veterans of the strip mine wars in Knox County have done their best to spread the alarm; just the other day one told a McDonough County audience, in effect, to get the kids indoors and load up the muskets. The big worry among these mostly farm people is what strip mining might do to the soil. Of course strip mining is a reformed character, no longer the ravager of land it once was. In fact, the mixing of soil horizons that follows mining sometimes can actually improves poor soils. But central Illinois’s prime soils present a more delicate case. Though research continues, it is by no means clear that such soils can be reclaimed to their pre-mining productivity within five or even fifty years.
But coal companies are not a benign presence even when they live up to the promises of reclamation law. Strip mining doesn’t disturb just the soil ecosystem but the social ecosystem as well. Money has a lot to do with it; when our Knox County Paul Revere rode to McDonough County she warned, “Every family will be torn apart between people who want and don’t want to sell. There will be no peace and quiet.’’
That ancient arrangement by which rubes exist to be fleeced by city slickers still stands in many a rural retreat. Coal companies can hire lawyers who are smarter and better prepared than the county boards who are supposed to oversee such things as reclamation plans and property tax assessments. Coal buyers (sometimes the companies themselves, sometimes their agents) have more tricks to get their way than a legislative conference committee.
Checkerboard leasing is one, by which they make it impossible for competing companies to acquire contiguous blocks for mining. Or they offer ignorant land owners such ridiculously low prices for coal rights (1.75 percent of the coal value in Richland and Lawrence counties last year, according to one report) that even farmers who pride themselves on their sharp eye for a barter came to Springfield to ask for protection in the form of a guaranteed 5 percent coal royalty.
Coal companies are fond of saying that strip mining is only a temporary use of land, and they are right, but. then so is war, even (within a less myopic time scale) suburbs. I suspect that it isn’t the destruction of the land that people fear so much from strip mining. Farmers are ruining the land anyway, by degrees, and the same people who cheer the federal strip mine law bridle at any hint of legal restraints on farmers’ profligate ways with the soil.
The 1977 federal strip mine law has provisions for ruling certain lands unsuitable for mining, including prime farmlands; those provisions will go into effect this fall or winter, if they survive the various legal challenges to them being argued now in Washington. But stopping the shovels won’t be easy. Coal still means money and jobs. When Logan County residents worried out loud about the dirty air and the drop in water tables that might reasonably be expected to attend the opening of Shell’s new mine, Shell officials told them everything would be all right, as if they were calming a child frightened by thunder. In the end the county board voted in favor of the 500 jobs and $200,000 in taxes the mine would bring, and approved the mine unanimously. Like they say in Knox County, it ultimately gets down to those who want to sell and those who don’t. ●