While there may have been excitement on Wall Street this week as Foresight Energy LP began trading on the New York Stock Exchange, Illinois residents living in the shadow of a Foresight Energy LP coal mine have a different story to tell.
The financial community lauds the chutzpah of Chris Cline’s Foresight Reserves, which controls St. Louis-based Foresight Energy. At a time when coal was on the decline in Appalachia, Cline moved his base of operations into the Illinois basin and bought up 3 billion tons of cheap, high-sulfur Illinois coal reserves. It currently operates four non-union mine complexes in Illinois, with others planned in the future. The mines include Pond Creek Mine, Williamson County; Sugar Camp Mine, Franklin/Hamilton counties; Deer Run Mine, Montgomery County; and Shay 1 Mine, Macoupin County.
This all may sound great to an investor, but Foresight’s rise to success has come at great expense to the people and environment in Illinois.
The greatest expense of a mining operation is the loss of life. Since November 2013 two deaths have occurred at Foresight’s M-Class Mining LLC – MC#1 Sugar Camp Mine, a longwall mine in Franklin County. Longwall mining provides the coal producer higher return but at great risk to the miners.
In longwall mining, the coal seam is divided into long panels about 1,500 feet across and 3 to 4 miles long. Rather than leave pillars for support, hydraulic roof supports are put in that run the entire length of the panel. A cutting head runs along the face of the seam, knocking the coal down onto a conveyor belt. With each cut the entire longwall unit—shearer, conveyor and hydraulic roof supports move forward and the roof behind the unit is collapsed, filling in the open space. Because the roof is constantly collapsing behind the mine, the technique is considered inherently dangerous.
Longwall mining creates a condition called planned subsidence. As the panels collapse underground the land overhead drops up to 6 feet, leaving cornfields and backyards like sunken bathtubs. The subsided land also negatively impacts structures such as homes and outbuildings, water wells, springs, farm ponds, and surface drainage.
Rather than pay to repair or replace a resident’s home from subsidence damage, Foresight often buys people out and bulldozes the structures. Entire neighborhoods have been obliterated around Foresight’s Pond Creek, Sugar Camp and Deer Run mines. While this may be profitable for Foresight, the expense to the residents’ sense of community and family legacy is incalculable.
Residents left living or working around the periphery of a Foresight mine have to endure the daily health hazard of coal dust infiltrating their lives and lungs, and 24/7 noise from conveyors, air vent blowers, trucks, loaders, bulldozers, and trains. Area residents must contend with lower property values, lost property taxes, increased truck traffic and train delays, damaged roads, contaminated air and water, and loss of prime farmland.
Before coal is sold it is washed with massive amounts of water to remove impurities such as clay, silt and rocks. The leftover waste material is stored in on-site impoundments. Larger material such as rocks and pieces of coal are called course refuse, while slurry, made up of a combination of silt, dust, water, bits of coal and clay particles, is called fine refuse. The coarse refuse is used to construct the impoundment dam, which then holds the fine refuse or slurry, along with any chemicals used to wash and treat the coal at the coal preparation plant.
Slurry impoundments have been known to fail, as was the case in Martin County, Kentucky on October 11, 2000 when the bottom of a slurry impoundment broke into an abandoned underground mine below. An estimated 306,000 gallons of slurry polluted hundreds of miles of the Big Sandy River and its tributaries and the Ohio River. The water supply for over 27,000 residents was contaminated, and all aquatic life in Coldwater Fork and Wolf Creek was killed. The spill was 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill and considered one of the worst environmental disasters ever in the southeastern United States.
Residents in Montgomery County, Illinois are extremely concerned about slurry waste impoundments at Foresight’s Hillsboro Energy, LLC Deer Run Mine. The first impoundment built 5 year ago is an approximately 140-acre, 90-foot-tall high-hazard impoundment. Less than 5 years later, because the first impoundment is not adequate to hold all the toxic coal slurry, the mine is now proposing to build a second disposal area nearly twice the size of the first with a 240-acre impoundment held back with a 60-foot-tall dam. Both impoundments will hold coal waste in perpetuity behind high-hazard dams above the towns of Hillsboro and Schram City.
It irks the residents that their county tax money covers the emergency action management of the high-hazard waste impoundments, yet no sales or severance tax is collected on the coal that leaves the ground.
Last month an unexpectedly large volume of groundwater infiltrated Foresight’s Sugar Camp Energy LLC Sugar Camp Mine. Not only were the miners put at risk, but the groundwater, high in chloride and dissolved solids, presented a threat if released to surface waters. Therefore, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency had to issue an emergency permit for two Underground Injection Control (UIC) wells authorizing Sugar Camp Energy to inject wastewaters between 7,500 and 12,900 feet underground into limestone and sandstone formations. Because of the emergency nature of the permit, local residents were unable to comment or participate in the permitting process.
Pollution from salts and heavy metals poses problems at other Foresight mines as well. For example, Foresight acquired Macoupin Energy, Shay #1 Mine located in Macoupin County from ExxonMobile in 2009. Along with the operating coal mine, Foresight also inherited a slurry impoundment that was polluting groundwater with salts and heavy metals. Nearby water wells have been affected, which has possibly contributed to serious health issues of some residents. Since then state regulators at the Illinois EPA issued a violation notice for the groundwater pollution and have now referred the case to the Illinois Attorney General.
Foresight has its sights on expanding existing mines as wells as starting up new ones. Foresight’s Sugar Camp Energy, LLC has submitted a mine application for the Logan Mine No. 1, a longwall mine proposed for Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton Counties. Landowners, who together own approximately 1,500 contiguous acres in Franklin County, are being pressured by Foresight to sell their land for the mine’s surface facility. The mineral rights to each parcel of land were severed from the deeds in 1948. The mineral deeds say that the mineral owners have the right to reasonable access to the minerals. The landowners contend taking the entirety of 1,500 acres, including an Illinois Centennial Farm, is not reasonable.
The time has come for coal operators like Foresight Energy LP to pay the true cost of the coal that benefits them so greatly. How many more miners have to die, how many more families have to be uprooted and communities destroyed, how much more farmland has to be sunk and degraded, how much more water and air has to be polluted, and how many more toxic coal slurry waste impoundments have to be constructed for the benefit of coal producers at the expense of Illinois citizens?
Tell the Governor the time has come to Protect the Prairie State from Coal Mining–Take Action Here!