Quinn signs bill to open part of Pyramid State Park to mining

August 19, 2011 at 01:19 PM

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Illinois’ governor has given the go-ahead for a plan that would open up a state park to mining for the first time, a venture that wary environmentalists say could be a slippery slope for stewardship of public land during hard economic times. 

Gov. Pat Quinn quietly signed into law a measure that allows Knight Hawk Coal Co. to lease a 160-acre strip of land at the edge of southern Illinois’ Pyramid State Recreation Area as a staging ground for a 240-acre strip mine just outside the 20,000-acre park. Percy-based Knight Hawk also would carve for coal underneath the public area. 

Mining could begin as early as next summer, depending on Knight Hawk’s unfolding efforts to work out a leasing deal with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the company’s ability to get the necessary permits, Knight Hawk’s Josh Carter said Wednesday. 

“It’s been a pretty fluid conversation making sure all the parties are on board,” Carter said. He called the project “a unique situation” and Quinn’s signing off on it “just another step in that direction.” 

Environmentalists have said they’re satisfied with reasonable safeguards in the measure protecting the park, but they worry that the move involving Pyramid - much of it former mining land that has been reclaimed - could open the door to future sacrifices of state land. 

“We want to make sure that this project ends up improving and not hurting state lands, and just as importantly we want to really make clear this is not a precedent for future use of conservation lands,” said Jack Darin of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. “Coal mines are devouring more and more Illinois land each year, and we don’t want state parks to be the next coal mines. 

In Knight Hawk’s case, Darin said, “I think the burden will now be on the DNR to oversee the project and make sure it’s done in the best possible way.” 

The bill’s sponsors have insisted the project is about preserving jobs in a part of Illinois known for coal mining. 

Under the plan, Knight Hawk would lease at fair market value a small portion of the park - a place that consistently has drawn 400,000 visitors annually in recent years - for a decade to get around a federal law requiring that coal not be mined within 300 feet of park land. As part of the venture near Pinckneyville, a 5,500-resident town about 70 miles southeast of St. Louis, most of the mining actually would take place off park land, in 240 acres of private land. 

Using a giant mechanical extractor, the mining company also would bore up to 1,000 feet into the walls of the pit next to the park to reach additional coal. All told, Knight Hawk expects to reap some 500,000 tons of coal a year from the site for roughly seven or eight years, adding to the 4.5 million tons the 15-year-old company now produces each year at five other mines in the region. 

Part of the park also would be leased out for storage of the dirt that will be dug up and later “restored” to state DNR specifications, perhaps creating more wetlands to make use of the land that’s been carved out. Knight Hawk will donate the 240 acres on which the strip mining would take place, land worth $1 million. 

Pyramid State Park can credit mining for its size and name, derived from a coal company that once existed there. The park’s original 924 acres, much of it previously strip mined, were acquired in 1968 from Southern Illinois University, which had used the land for research. Most of modern-day Pyramid had been mined before, from the 1930s through the early 1990s.