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Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2006 05:55 pm

Split at the seams

Montgomery County weighs future of longwall mining

Montgomery County residents soon will get their say on a controversial form of mining, but whatever the outcome of the Nov. 7 vote, neither side is likely to give up the fight.

Two companies, Hillsboro Energy LLC and Drummond Co. Inc., are hoping to tap more than 120,000 acres of coal reserves in the county immediately south of Springfield.

Their plan is to introduce longwall mining, a highly mechanized and efficient technique for removing coal that causes the ground to subside.

Opponents worry that longwall mining will cause widespread damage to the surface — and for that reason a number of property owners and the Montgomery County Farm Bureau have been mounting a vigorous fight.

Organized under the umbrella of Citizens Against Longwall Mining, opponents have pushed for the countywide vote — and pro- and anti-ban signs are everywhere in the county.

“This is a David-and-Goliath story — a difficult fight,” says Mark Bertolino, president of CALM and a farmer whose family’s roots in Montgomery County stretch back to the 1830s.

“We keep hearing the deal about jobs, jobs, jobs — [but] mining is an extractive industry. After 20 to 30 years, most mines are closed.”
Though the referendum is nonbinding, state Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Gillespie, says that if it passes, he will press forward with legislation to prohibit longwall mining in Montgomery County.

Roger Dennison, president of Hillsboro Energy, isn’t worried about the outcome.

“I think it will swing our way, but, regardless, I don’t believe Illinois will ban longwall mining,” he says.

A revitalized mining industry, Dennison says, will bring jobs, tax revenue, and possible spin-off businesses such as coal-gasification plants to the county.

Coal companies favor longwall mining because as much as 90 percent of the coal can be removed, compared with about 50 percent in the traditional room-and-pillar method. In longwall mining, a rotating cutting drum or shearer works underground along a coal seam, and, as the coal is extracted, the ground above is allowed to collapse.

Longwall mining is legal in Illinois and has been common in southern Illinois for years. To get a permit, companies must show a subsidence plan — in other words, they have to be able to return the land to its premining uses [see Bruce Rushton, “The return of King Coal,” March 23]. That usually involves addressing drainage issues, says Dan Barkley, a subsidence expert for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

“We believe if we restore the drainage, it will restore the productivity,” he says.

Even then, Barkley concedes, the land won’t look the same. “It can’t be the same, because the subsidence alters the contour of the land surface,” he says.

“The big thing,” Bertolino worries, “is that the land will never be back the way it was.”

Cindy Ladage, a Virden freelance writer, is a regular contributor.

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