Sierra Club activists test water near a coal mine in Montgomery County, Illinois. Photo courtesy of Joyce Blumenshine.
Big Coal companies from Appalachia are eyeing President Obama's backyard with intentions of transforming the Illinois Basin into their own playground -- with no rules.
The state faces at least 11 permit applications for new or expanded coal mining -- a crucial fork in the road for the state's energy future.
"We're at this critical time in Illinois," says Cindy Skrukrud from the Sierra Club's Illinois Chapter. "We've appealed permits for two mines -- a long-wall mine and a strip mine. We're dealing with new mines, others trying to expand, and others that aren't keeping with their permit restrictions."Last month, seven local activists traveled to Pittsburgh for a Citizens Coal Council training on the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, a federal mining standards law that is routinely ignored by Illinois coal companies.
"It's a struggle to get the mines to follow regulations. But even more so, we have to battle our own state agencies," says the Chapter's Conservation Committee Chair Joyce Blumenshine, who attended the training. "There are many ways the law isn't being followed."
The Club's Illinois Chapter has partnered with Prairie Rivers Network, Citizens Against Longwall Mining, and Heartland Coalfield Alliance, and has had immense help from the Sierra Club Water Sentinels program.
"Thanks to the help of the Water Sentinels, we have data that our state mining office doesn't even collect. We can show how vital these headwater streams and tiny tributaries are because they are full of life," says Joyce. "That's huge."
Several coal companies in Illinois have ignored rules with no fear of repercussions. One site in particular -- Industry Mine, a surface-coal strip mine, in McDonough County near the La Moine River -- has racked up 300 water-related permit violations over a five-year period. The state Attorney General's office acted only after the Sierra Club and other groups sent a 60-day legal notice.
Residents living near other coal sites, like the 400-acre Exxon site in Clinton County, have reported health problems, with "iron, sulfides, and chlorides" leaking into the aquifer adjacent to the Kaskaskia River. Because of weak state oversight, though, the plot has not been designated a hazardous waste area.
Many fear that Big Coal will turn Illinois into a dirty-energy exporter, sending boatloads of coal to the Gulf of Mexico or the coasts with a one-way ticket to a foreign country. Whether regulatory agencies accommodate companies like Peabody Coal or listen to their increasingly angry citizens is what will determine the state's direction.
"Illinois still thinks of itself as a coal state because we have a long history with it," says Cindy Skrukrud. "We have to keep fighting that idea and highlight what we've been achieving for clean energy. This state has created 10,000 jobs in the wind-energy field. We have to work to keep clean energy a priority."
If you're in Illinois or elsewhere, we encourage you to join those who want to move beyond coal to clean energy.
Read more about coal pollution:
Coal Pollution Will Kill 13,200 Americans This Year & Cost $100 Billion in Additional Health Care Bills
Coal Plants Do $62 Billion of Damage a Year to US Environment
Coal Costs US Public Up to $500 Billion Annually: Harvard Study