Keeping Dirty Fuels in the Ground

Protecting our public lands from mining and drilling will safeguard America's natural heritage, preserve wildlife habitat, help keep our air and water clean, and combat climate disruption.

In addition to the climate disruption caused by burning fossil fuels, Illinois is beset with environmental impacts brought on by the extraction of fossil fuels. From mining coal to drilling for oil and gas to storing tons of toxic coal to building pipelines across the landscape, fossil fuels production threatens our water, air and land. As we work to build our clean energy economy, which has created 100,000 jobs, saved consumers hundreds of millions of dollars and cut climate changing pollution by more than 5 million tons, we are simultaneously working to safeguard our air, water and land from the hazards posed by coal mining, coal ash disposal, oil & gas drilling and pipelines.

What We Work On


As the nationwide demand for coal is falling, Illinois is one of the only states in the country where mining is on the rise. The explanation for this trend is multi-faceted: mine permitting issues and rising mining costs have led to continued declines in mining in the Central Appalachian Region; scrubber installations are driving increased use of high-sulfur Illinois Basin coal; overseas export opportunities for Illinois Basin coal exist using existing railways and barges for shipment via the Illinois, Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and ultimately the expanded Panama Canal, and finally, Illinois’ deficient permitting and enforcement program with lax and inexpensive requirements lure the industry to the state. 

Coal mining pollutes our water and air, damages our land including prime farmland and forests, and destroys our rural heritage and communities. Mining leaves waste impoundments topped with rubble and dirt, containing billions of gallons of polluted water, which pose risks to the local environment for generations to come.

In addition, Illinois has over 100 coal ash ponds and mine-fills that leach toxic chemicals to groundwater, lakes and rivers, where pollution can spread, polluting drinking water supplies and threatening fish and wildlife. Coal ash ponds are also prone to collapse, as happened near Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 when over 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled into the Clinch and Emory Rivers. All  coal-burning electricity generates waste that can pose a threat to our drinking water. The state’s regulatory agencies have not held the coal industry accountable to the same standards as they do other industrial polluters, and the out-of-date  regulatory process precludes meaningful involvement by local residents.

Our Campaign

Our goal is to speed the transition of U.S. power generation away from coal and toward energy sources with lower carbon footprints.

To achieve this goal we are working to ensure that the true cost of coal is borne by the industry making alternative energy sources economically competitive with coal. Specifically, we will continue to work to improve regulation of coal extraction in Illinois, as well as to decrease state subsidies to and increase fees on the coal industry. 

Sierra Club has been increasingly engaged in the fight to stop coal mine pollution over the past 10 years. We fight to strengthen or oppose permits that threaten clean water and wildlife in Illinois. We also provide technical and organizing assistance to local communities to help them protect their clean water supply and wildlife from coal pollution.

As the coal industry pulls out of Appalachia and overseas demand for coal expands, Illinois Coal Basin communities are faced with a surge of new coal mining. Unfortunately, today’s coal mines use more machines to dig  large quantities of coal while employing fewer people than ever – and the consequences for Illinois‘ land and water are mounting.

Strip mining destroys thousands of acres of farmland, forests and streams as coal companies blast and dig through ground and rock to reach coal. Unfortunately, mining companies in Illinois are usually granted permission by regulatory agencies to mine through streams and wetlands – this loss threatens water quality downstream.

Longwall mining intentionally subsides thousands of acres of land, which impacts groundwater and surface streams, water wells, prime farmland, and roads.

As families retreat from mining impacts, the rural network of long-time farm families is destroyed. Towns become dependent on the boom and bust coal industry. When the coal is gone, the mines and employment end leaving a toxic legacy of coal waste for future generations. The state and local communities are also faced with cleaning up abandoned mine land (AML) across Illinois.

Coal mines in Illinois still rely on outdated pollution control technologies, if any, that do not remove the harmful pollution in mine wastewater and site runoff before it is discharged into rivers, streams and lakes. Most mines in Illinois process coal onsite, which generates millions of gallons of coal slurry -- a mixture of water, coal, waste rock and chemicals, including harmful salts and metals. When runoff from slurry pits and “reclaimed” mine sites is discharged, it often contains elevated levels of sediments, salts and metals, threatening clean drinking water as well as the health of hunters and anglers that rely on healthy wildlife.

Coal slurry waste impoundments cover hundreds of acres, putting the land forever out of agricultural production.  Monitoring is ended and long-term risks include groundwater and surface water pollution from acid run off and heavy metals.

Coal Mining Basics


Coal pollutes. It pollutes when it’s mined. It pollutes when it’s burned. And, the solid byproduct of burning it for electricity, coal ash, continues to pollute. Coal ash is full of heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, selenium, chromium and cadmium, which can cause cancer and brain damage in humans and are harmful to fish and wildlife.

The Dynegy Vermilion coal plant, now closed, operated three coal ash pits, two of which are now structurally failing, in the western floodplain of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, the state’s only National Scenic River. These pits are leaking coal ash, and the arsenic, mercury, and lead that it contains, into the Vermillion River every day. See the full report:

Dynegy’s Toxic Assets:

Legacy Coal Pollution in the Heartland

With coal-fired power plants and industries in Illinois generating 4.4 million tons of coal ash each year in addition to coal ash imports from at least 6 other states, Illinois leads the nation in coal ash damage cases. In 2009 Illinois EPA investigated 22 of the 24 coal-fired power plant sites in Illinois and found groundwater contamination from coal ash pollution at all 22 sites.  

Lax regulations on coal ash disposal in Illinois as well as across the nation have prompted the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Illinois EPA to write new rules for coal ash disposal.

The Illinois Chapter is working with members, allies and local citizens to make sure strong, federally enforceable coal regulations force power plants to comply with the law and protect clean water by phasing out dangerous coal ash ponds and requiring coal companies to switch to safer coal ash disposal methods.

What You Can Do


Illinois Chapter Sierra Club was key in efforts to pass strong fracking regulations for Illinois. These regulations were described as some of the toughest regulations in the nation in 2013.  Since then, there have been very few permit applications for such oil or gas wells.  There have been medium horizontal fracking operations.  The last high volume permit application was by Woolsey Co. in White County.  Woolsey had to re-submit their application to the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources three times, during which time the company found out that the new HVHF law is tougher than they anticipated.  In addition, Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE) appealed the permit, which slowed down the process.  Woolsey dropped their efforts by 2018 and even closed their White County office.  
Environmentalists, including Sierra Club, are still monitoring the permit process and are still concerned because a rise in gas and oil prices may again make HVHF projects seem lucrative.  We are also still concerned about medium level horizontal fracking, landowner rights, frack fluid disposal wells and other concerns related to fracking.   Methane leaks from wells are a main concern because methane is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for climate change. 
For information about the Illinois Chapter Fracking Committee and how to join in their efforts, contact Barb McKasson at




The Sierra Club Illinois Chapter considers fossil fuel pipelines to be an important part of our work to fight climate change and protect communities from destructive spills and leaks. Nationally, our work on pipelines is supported by the Beyond Dirty Fuels campaign, which is taking on polluting corporations. More information on our national policies on pipelines can be found here and here.

Rick Stuckey ( has led fights against pipelines in Illinois, including the expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. If there is an oil or gas pipeline issue that affects you, or that you’re interested in fighting, reach out to him via email:

More information on pipelines in Illinois is available here.