Abandoned coal mines have lasting effects on region

While coal mines that once littered the Metro East are no longer easily visible, they continue to pose a threat to those living in the area.

Today, many people living in the Metro East may be unaware of the region’s roots in the coal mining industry. According to Jeffrey Manuel, an associate professor in the Department of Historical Studies, coal was discovered in the area very early compared to other regions in the U.S., and the Metro East was located on a significant supply.

“This area has a history of coal mining that goes back a really long time,” Manuel said. “Geologically, we’re part of the Illinois Basin, this big geographical formation of coal, a coal seam that runs under most of southern Illinois, into parts of western Kentucky and a little bit of Indiana.”

Following the discovery of coal, many mining towns popped up in the area. According to Bruce Schottel, an engineer in the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Mines and Minerals, these coal mining towns ran north and south of what is now Edwardsville.

“Most people don’t realize that this entire Metro East area from pretty much Bethalto down to Millstadt, all the towns that line the bluff through here were all coal mining towns,” Schottel said.

While experts are unsure of the exact date when the first coal mine opened in the area, coal mining in Madison and surrounding counties ran from the early 1800s to the mid 1900s, and peaked around the turn of the century. During this period, coal was used for a variety of personal and industrial purposes.

“Coal mines mostly provided fuel for heating — back then, people mostly heated their homes with coal — and for industrial use in the St. Louis region,” Manuel said. “St. Louis was a coal-fired town at the time, [and] had horrible soot and smoke problems.”

While coal mining no longer takes place in this region, reminders of this past can still be seen, according to Manuel. This includes the town name ‘Glen Carbon,’ which means ‘Valley of Coal.’

“Today, there’s not active coal mining in Madison and St. Clair counties, but in some ways we still have these remnants of it,” Manuel said. “You can see museums, the town of Glen Carbon, and most directly, people deal with some of the problems of it through mine subsidence.”

According to Schottel, there are two main types of subsidence caused by past mining activities that can be seen in this region.

“When [abandoned mines] fail, depending on how close the mine is to the surface, it can result in either what we call sinkhole pits, which is a hole in the ground anywhere from 10 to 12, maybe 12 to 16 feet in diameter, and anywhere from a few feet to 8 to 10 feet deep. And those are kind of rare in this area, but they do happen,” Schottel said. “The other one is what we call sag subsidence, where the ground drops over a large area.”

Schottel said subsidence is a big risk in the Metro East because of the large area that was mined and the unpredictability of subsidence.

“If your house is over a mine, there’s a chance it’s going to subside,” Schottel said. “Now, in geological terms, the question is ‘When is that going to happen?’ Well, it could happen today, tomorrow, it could happen a thousand years from now. We don’t know, there’s no way to predict when that’s going to happen.”

In his role at the Office of Mines and Minerals, Schottel works on some of the most severe cases of subsidence in the region, including the Interstate 72 bridge outside of Springfield, Illinois.

“My agency and our office here in particular, we handle what are called the emergencies,” Schottel said. “These are the things that occur that are life-threatening. So, we have to investigate it first to determine, whatever it is that happened, ‘Is this life-threatening or not?’ And we have to make a judgement call on that.”

In a partnership that has already lasted more than twenty years, students in the Geography Department are hired to help the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in two primary areas — developing digital maps of mine locations and surveying mine subsidence.

“We have two ongoing contracts with the Geography Department,” Schottel said. “One does mine maps for us, where they have been working with the old mine maps for the state of Illinois and constructing a Geographical Information System with it. The other contract we have supplies students and personnel to survey some of our sites.”

Students hired to collect data to monitor the situation at abandoned mine sites become a part of the Subsidence Monitoring Response Team. The team travels to different locations in the southern two-thirds of Illinois and devotes most of their time to sites in Madison and St. Clair counties, according to the group’s adviser, Kerry Doyle, a research associate in the Geography Department.

According to Doyle, this job provides students with the kind of hands-on experience that is difficult to receive within a classroom setting.

“This job, it’s a decent enough job [for the students] — it pays well and it’s outside — but also you get more context, more history, more knowledge about things like ‘Why was there coal mining? What else is here? What is the ground doing? What’s happening to this building; is it crumbling?’” Doyle said.

This on-the-job experience is also something future employers look for, giving these students an advantage following graduation, Doyle said.

“Perspective employers like the fact that someone has hands-on experience in their discipline, in their field,” Doyle said. “It shows that they’re employable, and beyond employable, that they can take initiative and show an interest in what they’re doing.” 

Freshman geography major George Hayes, of Belleville, Illinois, joined the Subsidence Monitoring Response Team at the beginning of this semester. Hayes said he sees this experience not only as a learning opportunity but also as providing a service.

“[It is] data collection for a kind of community service because whoever lives in the houses that we’re surveying around in that whole stretch, then they know that they might be sinking into the ground.”

Doyle echoed this, saying he feels ethically obligated to inform homeowners when subsidence is occurring, even though that is not within his job description.

“A lot of times you run into people with some level of distress because their biggest investment in life, their house, is crumbling, and it’s like ‘What do we do?’” Doyle said. “We try to prepare them gently for what might be going on [and] try to calm them down when necessary or perhaps alert them to watch for something.”

For more information about mine subsidence and the history of mining in Illinois, visit the website for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Mines and Minerals. To discover the location of coal mines or see how close they are to your house, visit this interactive map by the Illinois State Geological Survey.

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