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.

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