UPDATE (6/5/2013): ELPC and Allies Appeal Illinois Coal Mine’s Operating Permit After More than 600 Permit Violations on Record Read press release for details
UPDATE (5/2/2013): Another permit issued to Industry Mine despite history of violations. Read more at the Huffington Post.
UPDATE (11/19/2012): The Illinois Pollution Control Board ruled Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, that the Industry Mine had violated its water pollution permit 624 times between 2004 and 2011, in line with ELPC's analysis. Read our press release for details.
“It was so vast and beautiful, like we’d gone back to prehistoric times,” remembered Kim Sedgwick, standing on a bridge above Grindstone Creek and gazing into the lush foliage toward where she and her then-fiancé had in 1997 come upon a Great Blue Heron rookery while canoeing. “Everything was so quiet. We were coasting by wild turkeys in their nests and raccoons looking out of bushes. It was a magical day.”
Wanting to protect the nesting herons from disturbance, the couple vowed never to tell anyone else about the little-visited spot on the creek in central Illinois. But now Sedgwick feels pressed to talk about that special stretch of water as part of her bid to protect Grindstone Creek and surrounding forests and prairies from the impacts of coal mining.
Grindstone Creek winds through and around the North Grindstone-Industry Mine, a series of strip-mined pits, “reclaimed” areas covered in grass and shrubs, and ponds holding water drained from the mines. Local coal mining became an obsession for Sedgwick and her fiancé Jeff Herrick more than a decade ago as mining expanded toward their favorite parts of the creek and forest. Herrick was later killed when his motorcycle collided with a deer on a country road, giving extra symbolism to the beautiful natural areas the couple once enjoyed together -- areas Sedgwick now sees endangered by mining.
State records sometimes refer to the “North Grindstone-Industry Mine” as a single entity, but Illinois EPA permits are issued separately to the North Grindstone Mine and Industry Mine, and still other state agencies may issue permits to joint, separate or overlapping parts of the mine(s). Regardless, the mine is – or, both mines are – owned and operated by a single owner: Springfield Coal Company LLC.
According to state records, the Industry Mine has been violating federal and state standards on releases into Grindstone Creek and other local waterways for years, with 624 total violations of its Clean Water Act permit between January 2004 and September 2011. A third of those violations involved excess amounts of sulfates, while others related to iron, manganese, pH (acidity/ alkalinity) and total suspended and settled solids. Violations, based on data reported by the mine owner, were logged at 16 of the 17 points where water is released into the Grindstone and other creeks that flow into the La Moine River and later the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.
According to Jessica Dexter, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) who has analyzed the data, the company’s own numbers show that the mine was still out of compliance with its Clean Water Act permit as of March 2012, the last month for which there is data.
Sedgwick and environmental groups, including ELPC, Prairie Rivers Network and Sierra Club Illinois, say the Industry Mine operators should be held accountable for past violations and forced to clean up their act if they want to continue mining. In 2009, the groups filed a notice of their intent to sue the company for violations. Such letters are meant to give the state an opportunity to take action itself before private groups or individuals litigate.
Following the groups’ letter, the Illinois Attorney General’s office launched an enforcement case that is currently being worked out before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. The Board is considering fines for the current owner of the mines, Springfield Coal Company LLC, and its predecessor, Freeman United Coal Mining Company LLC. While the maximum possible penalty for these violations is approximately $64 million, the Board has rarely issued a fine greater than about $100,000. State agencies are also deciding whether to issue the operators permits for new mines planned in the surrounding area, including near the town of Canton.
Springfield Coal did not return phone calls to comment on this story. But long-time mine engineer Greg Arnett says the mine is running in the most environmentally sensitive way possible.
Arnett came to the area in 1976, working for Freeman United Coal. He worked for many years as an engineer and for several years as the head operator of the Industry Mine. That was through 2004, after Industry Mine ceased coal production and most reclamation was completed, he says. The 624 permit violations found at the Industry Mine occurred between 2004 and 2011, after Arnett left that particular territory. During that time, he worked on new permit applications for Springfield Coal and then, at Springfield’s suggestion, formed his own company. He formed Black Nugget LLC in 2009 and has been operating the North Grindstone Mine ever since.
Arnett said that the sulfate-related charges which make up a majority of Springfield Coal’s permit violations are based on previous state standards for sulfates that have since been made more lenient. He is frustrated that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) has not revised the company’s permits to allow them to release more sulfates, in keeping with current state standards. And he doesn’t think the mines are seriously harming the environment. Standing with Sedgwick, he pointed to “reclaimed” strip mine areas, smooth land planted with saplings – many of them withered by this summer’s blistering drought – and native prairie vegetation. He enthused about white pelicans and snow geese migrating through, stopping at the mine’s holding ponds. With two hummingbird feeders outside his office window, a beloved wheezy dog following him around with baleful eyes and a collection of shells and antlers near his desk, Arnett obviously does have significant affection for the natural world.
He has developed a mutually respectful working relationship with Sedgwick. He knows she is constantly keeping tabs on the mine’s activities – he says he’ll just assume she does it from public roads. And he has taken her suggestions on preserving certain patches of trees or other small environmental measures.
“I do everything myself because I want to do it right,” said Arnett. “It’s not all about production. I’ll listen to the environmental community. I’ll do things differently to preserve as many trees as I can.”
“The normal practice employed by many mining companies, Freeman United included, has been to push all the trees down with stumps attached and burned or buried them,” Arnett said. “This practice would have been much cheaper for my company but I elected not to do it. It is not an environmentally sound practice. I utilized everything I could of this renewable natural resource. I do not view this as destruction. Trees have been planted as close to the operating pit as possible to restore the resource we removed.”
But regardless of – or perhaps even more strikingly in light of – Arnett’s stated best intentions, the company’s own data, government studies and the observations of local citizens like Sedgwick show that coal mining is indeed having a significant impact on Grindstone Creek and the surrounding ecosystem.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources studies show various fish populations in Grindstone Creek dropping drastically between 1988, when mining was ramping up, and 1998.
Heron nests are now few in Sedgwick’s once-secret spot, perhaps because of the drop in fish or nearby clear-cutting done on mine property. The Great Chandler Timbers in this area were once among Illinois’s last large intact old growth stands; now many of the trees have been cleared and the forest fragmented. Endangered species, including Indiana bats and alligator snapping turtles, have been documented in the region; ongoing mining and water contamination could make their survival precarious.
When earth is disturbed for mining, the interaction between oxygen and sulfides and other compounds in the rock frequently causes acid drainage that can contaminate groundwater and kill fish and other organisms in nearby water bodies. The forest surrounding the North Grindstone-Industry Mine is dotted with artificial ponds holding wastewater. Some of them look natural and inviting. But at least one is not so attractive. The water is tinged bright red-orange possibly from iron that precipitates out of the water at high acidity levels. A tall white silo with a noisy motor pushes white lime through tubes into the water, an attempt to make the water less acidic. White clouds of lime dust escape the machine and coat surrounding vegetation with a ghostly hue.
Disturbance of previously-inert rock can also cause alkaline drainage. Dexter said both overly acidic and overly alkaline conditions have been logged around the mine. Meanwhile, like at many operations, coal is processed onsite here, in a somewhat rickety-looking tangle of conveyor belts, silos and sheds where the coal is rinsed and crushed. If not properly confined and disposed of, the waste and run-off from such processing can cause serious water contamination.
“The biggest quantity of water discharge is from water running over soil that has been disturbed and not managed properly,” Dexter said. “But with the processing, it’s more intense pollution, more concentrated metals and things because they are actually washing the coal, trying to get impurities out and sending them into water.”
Dexter continued that: “Certainly there are problems with coal mine pollution around the state, but this is a particularly egregious case. Usually when there are violations you can trace them to something that breaks, something that wasn’t maintained well. Here you cannot even find a pattern in their violations – they are just not managing the property well. I don’t know if it’s an unwillingness to take their permit seriously, or if they’re just kind of thumbing their nose at the whole permit process.”
Coal from the North Grindstone-Industry Mine, visible in shiny black seams running through dull-colored shale in the pit, is used to power ethanol refineries and a cement kiln, according to Arnett. The company is also seeking contracts with at least one of the new high-profile “clean coal” plants proposed for central Illinois. Even as older coal plants are closing around the country – more than 100 in the last two years – demand for coal is still strong. Along with ethanol and cement, it is key to steel mills and other industrial uses. And power companies are still pushing to construct new “clean coal” and coal gasification plants that would have enough pollution controls to use Illinois’s high-sulfur coal. Coal exports are also growing, with plans underway to build new port facilities specifically to transport coal overseas.
Hence environmental groups and residents of coal mining areas say it is imperative that state and federal environmental regulations relating to coal mining be enforced, and that companies be held responsible financially and otherwise for their impact on the environment. Dexter said that this means the state should not approve permits for new proposed mines by the same operators unless they show the Industry Mine and the North Grindstone Mine are in compliance with permits and make amends for past violations.
Dexter is particularly incensed that the state of Illinois has given substantial subsidies to Freeman United, previous owner of the Industry Mine, including $477,346 awarded by former Gov. Rod Blagojevich specifically to expand the North Grindstone-Industry Mine. In total, the Blagojevich Administration announced more than $1.5 million worth of grants to Freeman United in 2003. As Dexter points out, that’s 15 times as much grant money as the highest penalty typically given by the Illinois Pollution Control Board.
Sedgwick, who is a customer service rep at Western Illinois University in Macomb and also sells home-made greeting cards, lives in a farmhouse several miles from the mine. When she wants more solitude, she heads to a getaway in the woods nearby. She’s built a pond stocked with huge ravenous catfish and decorated the place with outdoorsy memorabilia, including mementos inherited from her father. She’s also installed solar panels and a small wind turbine and serves as a representative for a small wind company. The renewable energy installments are her personal statement about the need to shift away from a fossil fuel-based energy economy.
“This is not just about some company,” she said. “The public is at fault for utilizing the coal. If we could reduce the way we use electricity, or the amount we demand, we could reduce demand for coal. We all need to walk the walk, not just talk it. We need to set an example. Sometimes I feel like backing off, like we’ve already done everything we can think of. But this problem is ours, and we have to keep doing more.”