Students Map Abandoned Mines on Computer

Students at Southern Illinois

University at Edwardsville are applying new technology to old maps

to determine where up to 1 million acres of abandoned coal mines

may be hidden across the state.

Experts say the computer project could eventually help property owners figure out whether their land is vulnerable to collapsing because of an underground mine.

“What the value is, in my mind, is for city planning, to avoid potential problems,” said Robert Gibson, an abandoned-mine expert with the state Department of Natural Resources. “Where do I put my water tower? Where do I put my hospital or school? It’d be great for that kind of decision.”

Gibson’s agency is working with geography students to analyze maps of abandoned Illinois coal mines via computer. The mine maps are scanned into a computer, then placed over other maps, including those of streets and sewer lines.

Through computer analysis, the students can determine whether certain areas are in danger because of hidden mines.

“What we’re hoping is that eventually this will be accessible over the Internet, so John Doe can type in a street address and, boom, it’ll pop up and show if it’s above a mine,” Gibson said.

Rooting out Potential Threats

Many of the state’s hidden mines are located in southern Illinois — up to 1 million acres, Gibson said. Communities already have had to deal the problems those mines can cause, he said.

For example, Collinsville had to replace a 38-year-old school after an underground mine made it dangerous. And residents of O’Fallon and Fairview Heights have complained about damaged homes and utility lines.

Maps exist for only about half of the state’s estimated 4,000 mines, so students won’t be able to root out all of them, Gibson said. He estimates that up to 70 percent of Belleville was built above mines, but many of those mines do not have maps.

Even so, the maps that do exist tend to be of the largest mines, which cause the biggest threat, he said.

The students and Gibson already have a model completed for the Edwardsville-Glen Carbon area, which they hope will prove that their concept works. Gibson said it would cost about $1.5 million to create a map for the entire state.