Time To Protect the Prairie State From Coal Mining

Across the Illinois countryside, rural citizens are fighting for their livelihoods, drinking water, farms, and future, and they are asking if the State of illinois has their backs – or not.   Last week, these residents came together to call on Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and his administration to end the long era of state government promoting coal and protecting it from regulation, an to step up to protect the Prairie State from a new coal rush.

Coal mining is surging in Illinois.   Since 2010, Illinois’ coal output as increased 42%.   As regulators crack down on coal mine pollution in other eastern states, Illinois’ historically lax regulation and lack of any tax on coal have put a big bullseye on our farms and forests. It’s not that we need or even use the coal here in Illinois – far from it.   Illinois coal is far too dirty to burn in most Illinois coal plants, and we’ve begun moving to cleaner sources of energy like wind, solar, and geothermal power. Big multinational companies are hoping that Illinois will not stand in their way, or tax them as other states do, as they dig up the countryside and ship it across the globe to coal plants that are allowed to burn Illinois coal despite its higher pollution content.   CItizens are calling on the state to do better.

“Often we feel that those who are there to protect us are fighting against us,” said Mary Ellen DeClue, of Litchfield and member of Citizens Against Longwall Mining (CALM).   DeClue and her neighbors are worried about a proposed 80-foot “high hazard” dam that would store mine waste in the city of Hillsboro.   The hazard was not disclosed in the original mine permit application.   “The lack of information about proposed mines and major changes that are made after the public comment period make it hard for the public to know what will happen to their community,” said DeClue.

Coalfield residents are also alarmed at weak enforcement against coal companies when they violate environmental laws designed to protect water supplies and public health.   “Illinois should be throwing the book at violators who cut corners and jeopardize our water supply, not giving them permission to pollute again,” said Ramona Cook, who is worried that repeat violator Springfield Coal Company, which has violated the Clean Water Act over 600 times at its Industry coal mine, will also cut corners and break the law at the proposed Littelton mine near her home.  “The Industry mine continues to pollute while the IDNR renewed permits and put area streams at risk,” said Cook.

Citizens are welcoming reforms announced last week in an agreement between the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, IDNR announced ten changes to the way Illinois considers applicaitons for new coal mines.   The changes include better coordination between IDNR scientists working to protect the environment and those considering mining permits; putting more complete information about mining proposals online, and not taking adversarial positions against citizens during mining hearings.   IDNR also recently announced further reforms,
including inspections all coal waste storage lagoons, such as those that have failed disastrously in other states recently, and steps to prevent conflicts of interest among mining regulators.

“We applaud IDNR and the Attorney General’s office for these new commitments to reform Illinois mining regulation,” said Dr. Cynthia Skrukrud, Clean Water Advocate for the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter. “They will not solve all of the problems overnight, but these are big first steps toward an Office of Mines and Minerals that gives more consideration to people and our environment— in line with existing mining laws.”

In addition to the new steps toward reform, citizens point to the past as a sign better days may be ahead.   In 2005, then Lt. Governor Quinn and staff Marc Miller, now DNR Director, stood with the citizens of Banner, Illinois against a proposed strip mine in wetlands of the Illinois River valley.   Community opposition backed by state leadership stopped that mine, which threatened the Village of Banner and two state conservation areas – Banner Marsh, and Rick Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area.

“I am thankful for then-Lt. Governor Pat Quinn and Attorney General Madigan for their support in our efforts,” said Ken Fuller, Mayor of the Village of Banner.  “It is clear that a group of concerned citizens can make a difference.”

These problems didn’t begin on Governor Quinn’s watch.   For a century, Illinois has promoted the coal industry and protected it from robust regulation.  However, we now know how much is at stake for our drinking water, our natural heritage, and our climate.  It’s time to turn the page at IDNR’s Office of Mines and Minerals, and protect the Prairie State from coal companies that have rural Illinois in their sights.  Residents are hoping that reforms announced this Spring mark the end of the days when Illinois protected big coal, and instead puts the people and the environment first.    We have seen Governor Quinn and Director Miller do this before, and now we need that kind of leadership more than ever to protect local communities and our resources for future generations.

Sierra Club Represents at Great Lakes Days in D.C.

Last week the Healing Our Waters- Great Lakes Coalition brought together organizations and volunteers from across the eight Great Lakes states to meet with U.S. senators and representatives on the need to protect this national treasure.

lake_michigan__building__chicago__illinois__united_states 

Sierra Club once again participated in the Great Lakes Days two-day event, represented by Chicago Group members Krista Grimm and Sabi Horvat, and Clean Water Organizer Colleen Smith. We met with nearly all members of the Illinois delegation and attended several events where we were able to meet and hear speeches from our Great Lakes Senators and Representatives.

Representative Mike Quigley

Representative Mike Quigley

Krista Grimm has participated in Great Lakes days for several years and knows her efforts make a difference. “I met two sport fishermen from outside Columbus, Ohio, and we found that we didn’t agree on anything politically, but we were all there to work for the lakes. That shared common purpose, and meetings where the legislative staff says yes, yes, and yes, are proof that our advocacy has impact.”

Sabi Horvat felt a similar effect from his experience. “This was my first time talking to representatives so it was a great experience to learn about the legislative process.  I was not expecting to be inspired by Washington DC, but my impressions from the passionate Great Lakes crew and the representatives and staff gave me hope for the future.”

Sabi Horvat in between Hill visits.

Sabi Horvat in between Hill visits.

Five priority issues were asked of our legislators:

1) Funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative- GLRI funds are used for thousands of critical projects in each state that restore habitat, clean up pollution, and improve our beaches along Lake Michigan.

2) Authorize the Great Lakes Ecological and Economic Protection Act-GLEEPA would establish stability for GLRI funding and reauthorize the Great Lakes Legacy Act–ensuring we continually strengthen our efforts in protecting the Great Lakes.

3) Prevent invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes - The release of the Great Lakes Mississippi River Interbasin Study has shown that physical separation is the most effective option for preventing transfer of aquatic invaders.  We need immediate, interim, and long-term solutions to this costly and devastating problem.

4) Support funding the Clean Water State Revolving Fund -CWSRP is a loan program that offers states much needed resources for investments in aging water infrastructure.  By fixing leaking pipes and outdated sewer systems, we stop CSOs and save money.

5) Protect waterways under the Clean Water Act-The U.S. EPA is set to establish a rulemaking that will help clarify the Clean Water Act and enhance protection for our wetlands and streams.

For more information on this issues click here. 

Citizens Speak Out For Protections from Coal Ash!

Last week  Illinois residents spoke out against the dangers posed by coal ash in our state and the need for greater protections.

In the face of newly proposed regulations by the Illinois EPA, environmental groups and local citizens urged the Illinois Pollution Control Board to strengthen the rules and include needed safeguards for communities and waterways.

Christine Favilla of Alton, IL

Christine Favilla of Alton, IL

Coal ash, a waste product of coal combustion, contains numerous heavy toxic metals and can contaminate water resources with arsenic, lead, mercury, among many more. Initial investigations have found groundwater contamination at every single coal-fired power plant studied!

The rules put forth are the first effort to establish criteria for monitoring groundwater and developing cleanup and closure plans for coal ash impoundments at power generating facilities. However, as proposed, the rules fall short of protecting Illinois communities from the public health and financial disasters associated with coal ash contamination.

At the first day of hearings residents from Peoria, Alton, Urbana, and other impacted communities gave testimony as to their concerns that these pits will have on drinking water and the other ways people use Illinois waterways.

Christine Favilla of Alton expressed her concerns about local coal ash pits.  “I work, live, and am raising a family near a Dynegy plant that has 4 active coal ash pond cells,” Favilla said. “We are gravely concerned about heavy metals that can cause cancer and brain damage. The IEPA needs to account for the serious health problems that can occur from this waste.”

Robin Garlish of Pekin commented on the threat these pits pose to the Illinois River. “People are fishing, swimming and boating in that river,” said  Garlish. “They have no idea about the contamination.”

Robin Garlish of Pekin, IL

Robin Garlish of Pekin, IL

Following on the heels of a coal ash spill disaster in North Carolina, the hearing marked one of the first opportunities for citizens to have their voices heard on this issue. Citizens spoke eloquently for clean, safe water and the need for the flawed draft rules to be strengthened to adequately protect the people of Illinois.

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Coal ash impoundment at Vermillion Power Station

The hearings will be continued May 14th in Chicago.

Sign up to attend and speak at bit.ly/coalashsignup

You can also submit comments online at bit.ly/CoalAshComments 

See press covering the hearing last week:

Dangerous Coal Ash: Is It In Your Backyard?

All across Illinois power plants are contaminating our rivers, streams, lakes, and groundwater with hazardous coal ash.  

Ash ponds along the Illinois River in Havana, IL

Ash ponds along the Illinois River in Havana, IL

Coal ash, a byproduct of coal combustion, contains high levels of toxic, heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, and many more.  Stored in ash pits, also know as ash ponds, coal ash presents serious public health hazards and environmental threats to nearby communities.

The dangers of coal ash pits are high, as shown by a recent spill in North Carolina that released 27 million gallons of polluted water!

Check out the map on this article and find out where coal ash is located near you!

For specific information on coal ash sites in Illinois check out these factsheets:

Vermillion

Powerton

Duck Creek

Havana

Marion

Joppa

Edwards

IEPA has proposed new rulemakings on characterizing and regulating coal ash pits at power plants.  To read more and send in comments go to: http://bit.ly/CoalAshComments

To sign up to attend a hearing go to: http://bit.ly/coalashsignup

Environmental Catastrophe Warns of Coal Ash Hazards in Illinois

CHICAGO — Last week a Duke Energy coal ash pit in North Carolina breached and released up to 27 million gallons of polluted water and over 82,000 tons of ash, resulting in the third largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

These environmental catastrophes are nothing new, and people in Illinois who live near coal ash pits are paying close attention. That’s why concerned residents are aligning with environmental groups like the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club to call on the Illinois Pollution Control Board (PCB) to strengthen coal ash rules proposed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in order to prevent the same occurrences here.

Joppa Coal Ash Piles Credit: Terri Treacy

Joppa Coal Ash Piles
Credit: Terri Treacy

The Illinois PCB will hold hearings on the proposed rules in Springfield on February 26 and 27 and in Chicago on May 14 and 15.

For more information, see: http://www.ipcb.state.il.us/COOL/External/CaseView.aspx?case=14705 .  To send in comments to the IPCB, see:  http://bit.ly/CoalAshComments

“These spills are tragic reminders of the hazards of coal ash and the burden these power plants leave on communities,” said Phil Marcy, Havana, Ill., a resident who has joined the coalition. “Living next door to a power plant weighs heavily on me, especially being downhill from a high hazard dam holding 90 acres of coal ash.  I want to know for sure that everything has been done to ensure the stability of that site and the safety of my family.”

“We like to believe that events like the one in North Carolina could never happen here, but in truth they absolutely can,” said Andrew Armstrong, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC). “We have a chance to prevent a coal ash catastrophe in Illinois now and create rules that protect our residents and the safety of our water supply.”

“This North Carolina spill highlights the need to assess the stability of coal ash pits in our own state. Illinois has nearly 90 aging coal ash pits, many of which were built in places they never should have been – over mine voids and in floodplains of rivers,” said Traci Barkley of Prairie Rivers Network. “We need to get ahead of the curve before disaster strikes in our own state.”

“We hope that the Duke Energy spill and the pleas by local residents throughout the state will be a wake-up call that these rules are needed- and they need to be done right.” said Cindy Skrukrud of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club.  “The people of Illinois and our precious water resources deserve the best protection from the hazards of coal ash.”

Currently, Illinois EPA’s proposed coal rules would allow a coal ash pit to remain open indefinitely, even if it is found to be contaminating groundwater.  Neither do the rules require the removal of coal ash waste pits that have been closed.  The environmental groups will ask the Board to require the removal of coal ash pits to high and dry landfills, allow for the assessment and prevention of damage to rivers and lakes, before it occurs and provide more opportunity for public input. Power companies should also be required to provide financial assurances so that taxpayers aren’t left paying the bill for clean-up.

Coal ash is full of heavy metals, which can cause cancer and brain damage in humans and are harmful to fish and wildlife.  Water contaminated by coal ash increases your chances of cancer to 1 in 50.[1]

At the Duke Energy power plant, a broken storm-water pipe underneath a 27-acre coal ash pit spilled hazardous pollutants into the Dan River.  Testing results released Thursday show that waters downstream had heavy toxic metals such as arsenic, chromium, iron, lead among others.  Arsenic was found to be nearly 35 times higher than the level EPA considers acceptable for drinking water.

Recent investigations into coal ash pits in Illinois have found contaminated groundwater at five Midwest Generation power plant sites, six Dynegy facilities and Prairie Power’s Pearl Station. Pollutants exceeding groundwater quality standards at these sites include antimony, arsenic, boron, chloride, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, nitrate, pH, selenium, sulfate, thallium, zinc and total dissolved solids.

The North Carolina coal ash pit is less than 30 acres in size with a storage volume of 155 million gallons. For comparison, the coal ash pit at Dynegy’s plant on the Ohio River in Joppa, Illinois holds over one billion gallons, and Dynegy’s Baldwin plant on the Kaskaskia River has a five billion gallon pit.  Along the Illinois River at Dynegy Havana Station a “high hazard dam” contains a 90-acre pit.  The retired Dynegy Vermillion power plant hosts a 2,400-acre impoundment, built in the floodplain of the Middle Fork River, our state’s only National Scenic River. If a spill occurred at one of these plants, millions of tons of coal ash could be released— far more than what is currently causing environmental and public health concerns in North Carolina.

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[1] U.S. EPA, Human and Ecological Risk Assessment of Coal Combustion Wastes, RIN 2050-AE81 April 2010, page 4-7.

Governor Quinn Announces Expansion of Clean Water Initiative

Today in his State of the State address, Illinois Governor Quinn announced a major expansion of the Illinois Clean Water Initiative, which offers low-cost financing for clean water projects undertaken by Illinois communities. Quinn also proposed opening the program to new, innovative approaches to solving pollution and flooding problems such as using green infrastructure and measures to reduce polluted runoff from urban and rural areas. Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter Director Jack Darin had this response:

“Investing in clean water infrastructure is not only a great way to create good-paying jobs, but it also protects our water supply and our health. Governor Quinn’s Clean Water Initiative can lend critical support to Illinois communities as they clean up pollution in our rivers, lakes, and streams, and plan to keep our drinking water safe from future threats. These are smart investments that improve our economy today, and our environment for the future. These projects will include not only traditional projects like fixing pipes and upgrading sewage plants, but innovative approaches that restore nature’s ability to absorb rainwater and filter pollution out of our waterways. We urge Illinois communities to take advantage of the Clean Water Initiative’s financing tool to advance their efforts to improve water quality, and we urge the General Assembly to approve legislation to open the funding to new, innovative approaches to protect our rivers, lakes, and streams.”

Emergency Action Stops Peabody From Illegal Logging at the Proposed Rocky Branch Strip Mine

The Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and local citizens’ group, Justice for Rocky Branch, are applauding an emergency action by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to halt illegal logging and land clearing at Peabody Energy’s proposed Rocky Branch coal mine in Saline County. The action to protect the forest came after local residents and the Sierra Club notified federal officials that the coal mining company was logging and clearing at the proposed Rocky Branch mine without a permit to conduct those activities.

IMG_0907The backstory begins in deep southern Illinois nestled at the junction of the flat till plain and the Shawnee hills in the lovely little community of Rocky Branch. Rolling farmland, punctuated by isolated, forested hills has been home to many Rocky Branch residents their entire lives, while others chose this beautiful area to build their retirement dream homes.

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Their dreams began to unravel over 6 years ago when Peabody Energy began stripping the land to mine coal from the Wild Cat Hills and Cottage Grove Mines east of Harrisburg, Illinois and immediately north of Rocky Branch. Having seen over 50 families displaced by the mines to the north of them, Rocky Branch residents weren’t surprised when land men crossed State Highway 13 and began buying up property and leasing mineral rights in the Rocky Branch community in preparation to open a new strip mine – Rocky Branch.

Although a few people sold out, the spirited resolve of those that refuse to give up their homes, their dreams, their legacy has been courageous. Having already witnessed much of Cottage Grove Township disappear to make way for strip mines and having endured the blasting and dust from the mining operations, they know exactly what to expect, which makes the fight for their homes and community even more compelling. Out of necessity, the determined community members that remain have formed Justice for Rocky Branch (JRB).

rocky-branch-aerialThe proposed Rocky Branch Mine is just over 1,000 acres in size and includes a 200+-acre forest. Strip mines throughout the Illinois Basin are logged and cleared before mining companies can access the coal seams beneath the ground, but state and federal mining laws require companies to obtain a mining permit before logging can begin. This is supposed to ensure adequate protections are in place to prevent runoff from damaging nearby homes and polluting creeks, rivers and streams. The permit also requires that adequate studies be conducted to ensure that no threatened or endangered species will be impacted.

Those steps were not taken in this case. In fact, a 2013 letter, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urged that more work be done to assess the wildlife of the forest and protect it. Instead, in late December log skidders and other equipment began rolling on to the proposed mine site, and by the first of the year logging operations began.

IMG_0911We then brought this illegal activity to the attention of the federal Office of Surface Mines (OSM) and demanded immediate action to save the forest and protect nearby residents from water pollution. After conducting its own investigation, on Monday OSM required the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to put an immediate stop to logging at Rocky Branch and forced the companies to implement sediment controls to protect nearby properties.

FWS photo.

Wild turkey are one of the many species that inhabit the forest and local residents enjoy seeing. FWS photo.

We are grateful for local citizens who were watching out for these woods, and to the Office of Surface Mining for stepping in to stop this illegal logging. Big Coal is taking aim at Illinois’ forests, farms and streams in the rush to dig up this dirty fuel and make a quick buck by destroying our natural heritage. We need Governor Quinn and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to step up and protect Illinois’ land and water from major coal companies and polluters.”

Justice for Rocky Branch is hosting a public meeting for all residents concerned about this proposed strip mine this coming Saturday morning, January 18, 9 AM at Dad’s BBQ Restaurant, 1238 US Highway 45 N in Eldorado.  All are welcome.

There is also a public hearing on the two proposed water permits for the mine on February 18 in Harrisburg, Ill. The mine would discharge dredge or fill material into the creeks and waterways of a majority of the 1094.5-acre site and fill 19,830 linear feet of ephemeral streams, 16,520 linear feet of intermittent streams, 3198 linear feet of perennial streams, several acres of wetlands, and 6.71 acres of open waters in Saline County, Illinois. Click here for more information.