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Illinois is littered with abandoned mines. The federal infrastructure bill pumps new funds into reclaiming that land

 A photo of a portal, or an unsealed entrance to a mine tunnel.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
A photo of a portal, or an unsealed entrance to a mine tunnel.

In spring 2015, Pekin Park District officials were startled when a hole suddenly appeared near McNaughton Park.

Officials with the state's Abandoned Mine Lands program found a collapsed mine shaft in a wooded area about 70 feet south of Route 98, near the northeast edge of the park.

$46,000 and a few months later, the problem was resolved without further incident.

That's just one of many stories illustrating the problems a mine abandoned decades ago can still pose today. Most people don't think of Illinois as a major coal mining state today, but it remains the fourth-largest in the nation.

Active mines today are mostly scattered around the southern part of the state, but 76 of Illinois' 102 counties were once home to mining operations. That includes Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford, and Fulton counties.

Many closed in the largely unregulated decades prior to 1977, when the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation was passed, setting parameters for the clean-up of shuttering mining operations.

The act established the Abandoned Mine Lands trust fund for reclamation of these properties. It is funded by a fee assessed on every ton of coal mined, but the collection fee expired in September 2021.

That fee was recently restored under the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. What's more, Illinois is also expected to see an additional infusion of cash separate from the usual collection fee.

"Illinois is really set to benefit greatly from that one time boost," said Amanda Pankau, an energy campaign coordinator with the Champaign based Prairie Rivers Network. "So Illinois is expected to see $1.3 billion over the next 15 years just from that single investment, in addition to the money we'll receive from the the trust fund."

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources maintains a map of known abandoned mine sites and the estimated costs to restore the land.

But many sites aren't catalogued at all. One former mine site along Camp Street in East Peoria wasn't recorded until the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency determined spilled gasoline was winding its way into an old mine shaft opening at the base of a steep hillside.

"Moving forward into the future, we need to be be making sure that inventory also gets up to date," said Pankau.

The agency prioritizes sites into three categories, with imminent threats to public or environmental safety receiving the most urgent responses. Pankau said the additional funding may allow officials to direct resources towards also restoring more priority two or three sites further down the list.

Pankau said that land can then be put back to productive use.

"These properties can be a future source of investment, economic opportunity for communities," she said. "I think of communities in Macoupin County, where there's a lot of farmland, and farmland is expensive. So we can reclaim abandoned mine lands and have maybe cheaper property for opportunities and where we're not taking farmland out of production."

She noted other former mine sites have become wineries, community sports fields, and even state parks.

"Once we get this influx of money coming through, there's going to be an increase in jobs, not just at the department, but in communities actually doing the work," Pankau said.

Copyright 2022 WCBU. To see more, visit WCBU.

Tim Shelley is the Assignment Editor and Digital Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.