Coal, New Realities, and Misplaced Trust

Old Murdock Mine is now a disposal site for coal ash, sewage sludge and other industrial waste

An excerpt of this commentary appeared in the Sidell Reporter on 7/7/2011.

In a recent commentary in the Danville Commercial News, a former coalmine subcontractor from Catlin, Illinois shared his perspective on Sunrise Coal, LLC’s (Sunrise) proposal to mine coal in the farm communities of Allerton, Homer, Fairmount, and Sidell (AHFS).

There is another perspective. Today, coal’s downsides – damage to local resources and harm to public health – are widely recognized. Cleaner and healthier sources of renewable energy are available now. When we know there is a better way, it’s time to move in that direction.

Although abandoning coal will not happen immediately, the transition to cleaner energy options is already underway. Old coal plants are being retired and many proposed new coal plants are being canceled because the benefits are not worth the risks.

States’ licensing of coal plants is slowing. In June 2007, Florida’s Public Service Commission refused to license a huge $5.7 billion, 1,960-megawatt coal plant because the utility proposing it could not prove that building the plant would be cheaper than investing in conservation, efficiency, or renewable energy.

Bank lending for coal plants is slowing. In February 2008, investment banks Morgan Stanley, Citi, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Bank of America announced that any future lending for coal-fired power would be contingent on the utilities demonstrating that the plants would be economically viable with the higher costs associated with future federal restrictions on carbon emissions.

The U.S. is also on the path away from coal by becoming more efficient. Increased efficiency is the most cost-effective new source of energy. Other countries, Denmark and Japan for example, enjoy services similar to ours, but use much less energy.

Mining and processing of coal usually bring long-term consequences to communities like ours that may outweigh benefits. Coal slurry – the used wastewater from washing coal – contains dangerous heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, mercury and selenium that contaminate local drinking water.  Coal dust blowing from processing plants increases asthma and respiratory disease. Undermined areas are weakened, and are less able to attract new construction because risk is higher. Illinois has no shortage of failed coal towns.

Damaged communities are readily seen in central and southern Illinois:

  • Near Lively Grove, in Washington County, families downwind from the new Prairie State Generating Campus (power plant, coal mine and ash disposal) are relocating away from power plant emissions and coal dust.
  • Near the Pond Creek mine, in Williamson County, residents have relocated away from the noise, light and dust from a 24/7 coal processing facility that moved in.
  • South of Carlinville, in Macoupin County, a slurry impoundment near the Shay 1 mine is eroding and leaking offsite into Spanish Needle Creek and groundwater supplies.
  • At the Monterey 2 mine near Germantown, a coal slurry impoundment was constructed in the shallow aquifer, destroying a potable water supply that had been used by generations of nearby farmers and residences.

Health risks, in these examples, caused residents to leave their property. In a report titled “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” Physicians for Social Responsibility describes damage to the respiratory, nervous, and cardiovascular systems caused by the coal cycle: mining, transportation, combustion and ash disposal.

Community decline lasting for multiple generations can follow the one-time removal of coal because farms and towns cease to be quality places to live as dust, noise and health risks increase and as drinking water is contaminated.

All mining companies that operate in the Midwest know about the long-term consequences to the communities in which they mine. But mining companies appear to be motivated exclusively by their bottom line. The coal under the AHFS community has a gross value of roughly $3.5 billion. That number explains why Sunrise is eager to access the AHFS community coal.  Keep in mind that Sunrise proposes to share a small 4% royalty with landowners.

Regulation in Illinois appears to have failed to protect the interests of citizens like those in the examples. Robert Johnson, PE., an Illinois Licensed Professional Engineer, with 30+years of environmental engineering, puts it this way: “If you’re thinking Springfield will protect you, it hasn’t happened yet.

The 1977 Surface Mining and Regulation Act (SMRCA) explicitly prohibits permanent impoundments of coal slurry. Unfortunately, even today, Illinois regulators charged with implementing SMRCA allow mining companies to walk away from slurry impoundments, leaving them with potential to contaminate local drinking water with mine seepage for generations.  This can be seen nearby at Murdock.

Traci Barkley, watershed scientist for Prairie Rivers Network (PRN) thinks that regulatory reform and enforcement of existing regulations is critical to protect Illinois’ water resources. Ms. Barkley says, “In the last three years, less than 20% of mines in Illinois were in regular compliance with their water pollution permits.  Citizens deserve regulation that is transparent, enforced, and protected from influence.”

Recognizing that landowners must protect themselves, Stand Up To Coal advises landowners, if they feel they must lease their coal, to protect themselves proactively by writing protections into their lease agreements and to consult an experienced attorney who has no coal obligations.

Against this backdrop of failed regulation, Sunrise’s assertion that it will follow the laws and regulations of Illinois rings hollow. Statewide, permit compliance records demonstrate that the coal industry relies on circumventing federal and state laws and regulations. Sunrise does not reveal that the coal industry contributes heavily to make sure state regulation is coal-friendly.

Are mining jobs reality or myth?   In the past mining did create jobs – but now that does not seem to be the case. In Illinois fewer than 3,500 people are employed in about 35 mines. Nationwide, the wind industry now employs more people than the coal industry. Mining, like farming and other industries, now substitutes machines for people.

Itinerants, not locals fill many mine jobs. Experienced miners displaced from Appalachia, Wyoming, and other Illinois towns drive in and live in RV’s and motels during the week.  Sam Stearns, a former miner at Murdock, observed that an experienced non-local crew built the surface equipment and after completion moved to the next job.  How many short-term local jobs would justify multigenerational depopulation and damage to a community?

Taking care of and investing in people who once mined must be a priority in the transition from coal. With retraining, miners can fill the growing number of clean energy jobs.

In the aggressive pursuit of profit and the absence of effective regulation, mining companies can inflict permanent damage on the resources of uninformed communities and their farmland and not look back.  Kevin Block, local resident, farmer and real estate agent puts it this way: “Placing the future of the principal asset of your farming operation – your land – in the hands of a mining company or government run subsidence insurance program puts you in a very precarious position.”

Until world population stabilizes, food production trumps all else. Any action that damages agriculture would be unfortunate. In the Allerton, Homer, Fairmount, Sidell community, “black gold” may be well-drained, high-organic topsoil, not coal.

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