At the Mercy of the Mine: the Long-Term Impacts of Longwall Coal Mining

In the past three years, Sierra Club member Karyl Dressen has watched the fields on her family’s farm be subsided by longwall mining. Some sections of the fields, which have been in the family for decades, have plummeted nearly seven feet, creating unlevel ground that is difficult to farm. The fields have literally “gone down the drain” because of longwall mining practices at Hillsboro Energy LLC’s Deer Run Mine in Montgomery County.

Uneven soil subsidence.
Uneven soil subsidence. Photo Credit: Karyl Dressen


Despite Illinois’ position as a national leader on climate and energy policy, coal mining is still an active industry in the Prairie State. In fact, Illinois is the fourth largest coal-producing state in the US. In 1930, Illinois produced 45,776,272 tons of coal. Nearly a century later in 2019, Illinois produced 45,408,293 tons of coal. Instead of producing nearly the same amount of coal as it did a hundred years ago and selling it to other states and countries, Illinois must consider the negative impact of coal mining and take steps to ensure farmers, communities, and our climate aren’t at the mercy of the mines. 

Current regulations and mining practices leave rural farming communities in Southern Illinois in the lurch, and there’s no end in sight. Hillsboro Energy recently requested a five-year renewal on its permit to run the Deer Run Mine. Local farmers say that the mine is only in the early stages of the damages it can inflict on our farmland and the local watershed. We cannot afford five more years.

Deer Run Mine is a longwall mining operation, which is particularly destructive to Illinois farmland and communities. Longwall mining requires removing nearly the entire coal seam underground in long, wide panels that can be 1,400 feet wide and up to three miles long. When equipment that supports the mined area’s ceiling is removed, the ground layers above it sink and “subside,” often dropping up to seven feet from the original levels. Consequently, what were once level, well-drained, efficiently farmed surfaces are left with uneven dips, slopes, and ledges. Natural drainage can’t function under these conditions, which leads to flooding that damages fields and roads.

Subsidence from longwall mining in Montgomery County has caused extensive damage and delays along Illinois Route 185 for the past three years, with reduced speeds of 20mph, lane closures, and detours. Some of the well-drained and efficient farm fields that local farmers worked their lifetimes to maintain and protect from ground erosion have likely lost more precious topsoil in the few years since longwall mining began than in the decades of farming before.

Longwall mining causes permanent geological changes on Illinois land that affects the efficiency and yield of family farms for generations to come. Even further, coal operators are required to provide a “description of methods to be employed to minimize damage from planned subsidence” but that support often falls through. Coal operators aren’t obligated to provide remedies for the significant loss of topsoil and quality farmland, and state and federal regulations cater to the coal operator instead of hard working Illinois farmers. 

Highway IL Route 185 subsidence impacts.
Subsidence impacts on highway IL Rte. 185. Photo Credit: Karyl Dressen 


As the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) considers Deer Run Mine’s application for its renewed permits, the agency must consider the full climate, agricultural, and economic impacts of mining. The impact of longwall mining at the Deer Run Mine on farmland and the area’s watershed is only set to worsen—only five of the seventeen mining panels approved by IDNR have been completed. Instead of giving the green light to many years ahead of coal extraction on nearly 8,000 acres of prime Illinois farmland, IDNR must protect farming communities and Illinois’ robust agricultural ecosystem and deny Hillsboro Energy’s permits. Illinois is rapidly moving away from burning harmful coal. It’s time for us to stop mining it, too.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) will host a public hearing on the 5-year renewals of the mining permits at Deer Run Mine on Thursday, February 8, 2024 at 5:30pm. The hearing will be held at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Hillsboro, Illinois. Written comments can be sent to the IDNR Land Reclamation office with a subject line indicating ‘Public Comment Deer Run Mine Permit Renewals.’ Comments can be sent via email to or mailed to IL Dept. of Natural Resources, Office of Mines and Minerals, Land Reclamation Division, One Natural Resources Way, Springfield, IL 62702-1271. Learn more and register to attend the hearing here.