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, and 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 percent. 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 10 changes to the way Illinois considers applications 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 of 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.
Said Dr. Cynthia Skrukrud, Clean Water Advocate for the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter:
We applaud IDNR and the Attorney General's office for these new commitments to reform Illinois mining regulation. 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.