Abandoned strip mining sites in the southeast corner of Williamson County that have been identified by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as some of the most toxic spots in the Midwest are causing concern for county officials.
“The first time I drove through here, I said, ‘My God! This is horrible,’” said Williamson County Engineer Greg Smothers, as he recently drove south on Dykersberg Road past the abandoned Will Scarlet mine site that encompasses about 500 acres.
Smothers isn’t the only one who has been horrified by what he saw.
Years ago, CBS’ “60 Minutes” did a feature story on Will Scarlet, which the show identified as one of the worst abandoned mine acid drainage sites in the nation. This came shortly after the federal abandoned mines land emergency program was enacted in 1984 to help clean up the sites.
The stretch of pavement Smothers drove on wore a deep orange hue. Dried watershed areas adjoining the road have the same orange hue. There is no wildlife to be seen, and vegetation is withered.
The problem was initially brought to Smothers’ attention by Ron Kiser of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources office in Benton, when Smothers began his job as county engineer two years ago.
Strip mining operations in the 1950s at the Will Scarlet site involved removing soil, rock and other layers lying above natural deposits of coal. With the refuse exposed to the elements, oxidation occurred that created an acidic runoff into nearby streams and rivers. The acid levels of nearby water exposed to runoff is nearly double of what is deemed safe, Smothers said about water sampling tests done a regular basis by the IDNR.
“Aquatic life can’t even live here,” Smothers said. According to information from the IDNR office in Benton, there are about 20 miles of nearby streams and creeks devoid of any life.
Smothers and IDNR officials like Kiser are concerned about continuing runoff and seepage into water tables and streams that eventually go into the Ohio River.
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There has been treatment of the site through the Land Reclamation Division of the IDNR, but funds are limited, with about $130 million available to treat about 200 sites in 39 counties affected by mining throughout the state, said division Supervisor Greg Pinto.
Smothers said he is appreciates IDNR’s concern about the area and the agency’s assistance with other projects in the county. Those areas include one north of Skyline Drive outside Marion, where the IDNR assumed financial responsibility for roadwork where acidic runoff eroded culvert piping.
In addition to public health safety, Smothers is concerned about areas around Will Scarlet causing the same road problems.
Although there has been some reclamation work done in the past at Will Scarlet, county officials want to see a more concerted effort from state officials and a larger expenditure of funds.
A letter was sent to IDNR recently from the Williamson County Board stating Williamson County’s concern about public safety hazards and the need for more erosion control, Pinto said.
“The main thing we want to emphasize is this is a very bad situation and we were led to believe there is funding available to clean up these sites. We would hope that IDNR will come through with the funding to clean up one of the worst sites in the Midwest. We just want to try to see these areas are improved so they can be utilized and developed for the good of Williamson County,” said county Board Chairman Brent Gentry.