What happens when government regulators fail to uphold coal mining laws, in a state of constant violations?
No one knows better than residents in Illinois: Today marks the March 25th anniversary of the tragic Centralia, Illinois coal disaster, when government inaction on a violation-ridden coal mine led to an explosion that needlessly took the lives of 111 miners.
Nor does anyone know better than residents in Clinton County, Illinois, where toxic coal slurry from a nearby mine contaminated the watersheds of unwitting farmers more than a decade ago.
Now, with state mining regulatory agencies mired in scandal, violations and public outcry, and on the heels of the West Virginia and North Carolina coal ash and slurry disasters, Illinois residents embroiled in one of the nation's most notorious coal slurry cases are appealing for the federal government to revoke approval of the state's rogue coal mining agencies and allow citizens to lawfully seek environmental compliance in the courts.
Citing a number of violations of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the Citizens Opposing Pollution filed a 60-day intent to sue notice on March 17th with the Department of the Interior, unless it takes over the state's abysmal enforcement program.
Writing to Department of Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on behalf of the citizens groups, Illinois-based attorney Penni Livingstone noted:
The citizens of Illinois are without adequate means to fulfill the intent of the law and to bring about compliance through enforcement as intended by the law. IDNR, IEPA, the Illinois Attorney General, OMM, and coal mining companies have all turned a blind eye to known reclamation violations that impact our health, safety, and welfare and that breed a disrespect for the law and the government. The situation is so pitiful that our state actually subsidizes the violations! Forbidden site conditions that poison our drinking water and allow violators to save millions of dollars not complying with long-standing environmental requirements are not consistent with the purpose or meaning of the applicable law and such conditions constitute injustice to our citizens, our system, and our planet. The coal mining industry and the government agencies lack integrity in this respect.
Last December, after a similar petition by the West Virginia Citizen Action for Real Enforcement Campaign, the DOI's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) agreed to investigate various SMCRA violations and regulatory failure by West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection.
These illegal site conditions that Illinois citizens have no right to enforce under the Illinois law as interpreted by our Supreme Court include the presence of forbidden permanent impoundments of hazardous slurry materials that do not meet the standard of being called "clean water" and that are impounded with high hazard dams made up of acid producing waste known as gob, failure to restore the land to a condition capable of supporting uses which it was capable of supporting prior to mining, failure to return the land to the approximate original contours, failure to prevent contamination of ground or surface waters, and posing an actual or probable threat of water diminution or pollution including the poisoning of drinking water aquifers and the changing of the hydrologic balance of such water bodies.
Outraged by a similar type of political machinations in the Department of Mines and Minerals in 1946, four United Mine workers in Centralia wrote a letter calling on the Illinois governor to take action on clearly dangerous buildups of coal dust. The letter described the mine's situation, and made a desperate request for immediate intervention:
In fact, Governor Green, this is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the Department of Mines and Minerals enforce the laws at No. 5 mine of the Centralia Coal Company at Centralia, Illinois, at which mine we are employed, before we have a dust explosion at this mine like just happened in Kentucky and West WV.
On March 25, 1947, an explosion ripped through the Centralia mine and killed 111 miners. Half of them died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Three of the four men who had written the governor also died in the explosion.
The coal slurry situation in Clinton County remains dire.
"Please revoke approval of the Illinois coal mining program in the next 60 days," the Illinois Citizens Against Pollution appeal concluded, "so we can bring suit in Federal Court to bring site conditions into compliance in the Albers Germantown community before a failure of the Exxon high hazard dam (made of toxic waste) occurs. A breach of the 60 foot tall dam walls (that have required repairs in the past), could release the gob walls and the 422 acres of hazardous slurry onto the homes and farmland in the area. This illegally impounded slurry material at the Exxon facility is more hazardous than the material released in the highly publicized TVA breached dam. Exxon's waste is not just coal ash, allowed to be used for reclamation instead of clay; its coal production waste. The dangers to life and homes is, however, quite similar. Think Buffalo Creek and help us."