Changes were announced in April by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR), whose Office of Mines and Minerals directly oversees the permitting process, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose office has intervened in opposition to a proposed surface mine in the Canton area of central Illinois.

DNR Director Marc Miller said the reforms “are the most recent steps to further restore the integrity of this agency to allow for more public participation as we work toward becoming a national model for transparency.”

Among the changes are increased inspections of all coal ash impoundments and a strengthening of the internal oversight process for permit applications. DNR has added a position of general counsel to Mines and Minerals ostensibly to focus on matters related to Illinois statutes and regulations related to coal and aggregate mining, blasting and explosives, mine safety, and abandoned mined lands reclamation.

When DNR receives applications for new mines, the agency now will notify the public as soon as possible, as well as require applicants to participate in public hearings.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Prairie Rivers Network have pushed for reforms of the coal mine permitting process in Illinois. They have accused the DNR of serving more as an advocate for the coal industry instead of protecting the public, a charge denied by the agency.

Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said the reforms are another attempt by opponents of coal to shut down the industry in Illinois and nationwide. And they come as several new mines opened and proposed by Foresight Energy Partners, White Oak Resources Corp., and Hallador Energy, among others, hold promise for the state’s high-sulfur steam coal output to soar beyond 60 million or even 70 million tons a year later this decade.

The new rules, Gonet complained, could slow that expected growth. The charges are being handled administratively and do not require approval by the General Assembly.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, is locked in a fierce re-election battle this year.