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Freeman Campsite

The swollen banks of the Big Muddy River are seen May 17 in Zeigler. Dave Freeman owns the property and is concerned about what the Pond Creek pipeline proposal could mean for his campsite.

CARBONDALE — Despite public opposition, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has made a “tentative determination” approving Williamson Energy’s request to dump millions of gallons of diluted wastewater from Pond Creek Mine into the Big Muddy River.

Williamson Energy had previously submitted an application for a permit to allow its Pond Creek Mine operation to pump millions of gallons of high chloride, high sulfate wastewater into the Big Muddy River after diluting it in a system of tanks. The company says the need to do this stems from pumping seep water from mine shafts to ensure the safety of miners, according to public documents.

The application to the IEPA is just one of two that need to be approved for the process to go forward.

According to an IEPA fact sheet that accompanies a draft permit for the project, there were other alternatives to dumping the diluted wastewater into the river, but they were ultimately passed on for a variety of reasons, including financial and technological concerns.

The final ruling from IEPA will come after the Aug. 12 public comment period is closed.

Rachel Torbert, the spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said Tuesday the second approval needed is from IDNR, and would approve the pipeline transporting the wastewater to the diluting station at the river.

She said the IDNR request is still under review.

“Right now they are waiting on our decision,” she said.

The IDNR application states the water would be carried via a pipeline, about 12 miles in length, to a discharge area in Franklin County. The water to be discharged has elevated levels of chlorides and sulfates.

The IEPA stated in an email this past December, at the time The Southern's published its first story on the issue, that chloride and sulfate are toxic to aquatic organisms in amounts above accepted water quality standards. The draft permit, sent out earlier this month, says the IEPA believes the plan for keeping the Big Muddy River safe is sound.

“Sulfates and chlorides will undergo an increase in loading to the receiving streams as a result of the mining activities. Based on estimated effluent concentrations for this mine, chloride and sulfate will meet water quality standards in the receiving stream based on the mixing provided by my December 13, 2016 water quality memo,” the July 12 IEPA Public Notice Fact Sheet says.

“Sulfate and chloride will remain dissolved in the water and will move through the downstream continuum," the fact sheet reads. "Small amounts of these substances will be removed by organisms as these substances are necessary for life. No adverse impacts to the receiving streams will occur as all water quality standards will be met.”

In an email, Kim Briggs, IEPA public information officer, said the IEPA will release a formal decision after the Aug. 12 public comment period is over.

The optimism IEPA seems to have in its decision is not shared by everyone. During a previous public comment period on Williamson Energy’s IDNR application, residents and concerned citizens voiced deep concern over the plan during a hearing in October.

Cade Bursell, of Murphysboro, spoke, and explained that she owns about 35 acres of property through which Lewis Creek runs. Bursell noted that the Big Muddy often overflows its banks. She told the panel she was concerned those chlorides and other chemicals could back up into the creek that runs through her land.

“It’s really very unclear how much chloride and sulfate will be entering the river and what the long-term consequences of this action will be,” Bursell said, according to a copy of the meeting’s transcript.

Joyce Blumenshine, a mining issues volunteer with the Illinois Sierra Club, also spoke at the meeting, and raised concern that the pipeline’s input into the Big Muddy would be just below a gauging station where water contents are measured.

“Is that by intention, so that this discharge of millions of gallons of water will be below the closest gauging station?” she asked.

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The comment period is required for large public decisions if the public or public officials request it. However, the late notice of the October meeting concerned some residents.

The pipeline hasn’t been popular with Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens, either. His city sits along the Big Muddy and routinely sees the river spill over its banks. The idea of contaminated water, no matter how diluted, being pumped into the river gave him pause.

“As the son, grandson and great-grandson of coal miners, I am keenly aware of mine worker safety issues. I want Pond Creek Mine to be able to operate in a way that provides jobs, powers our communities, and provides a safe environment for the workers,” Stephens wrote in June 12 letter to the editor published in The Southern.

After the news broke of the IEPA decision, he again spoke out against the plan.

“The ‘tentative determination’ to grant the permit to Pond Creek Mine by the Illinois E.P.A. makes a person wonder what the ‘E.P.’ in I.E.P.A. actually stands for,” Stephens wrote in an email Tuesday.

He pointed to the laundry list of substances the IEPA requires testing for in the special conditions of approval — things like zinc, arsenic and mercury.

“That should be enough to cause any reasonable person to stand in opposition,” he wrote.

Dave Freeman owns property along the Big Muddy River in Franklin County — he takes family and friends out there frequently to go camping and fishing. He said “it’s sad to me that they could possibly do something like this” when he heard the news of the IEPA's tentative determination.

However, he said he needs more information and for there to be a more definitive answer before he can really form an opinion.

The tentative decision appeared to be driven, at least in part, by money.

“Continued operation of the existing mine will continue to provide jobs for 203 employees with an annual payroll of approximately $18 million,” the IEPA document says.

It also adds that in addition to these 203 direct employees, there are another estimated 100 persons who are employed in daily work associated with the mine’s production including truck drivers, supply and support personnel, train crews, and technical personnel.

The document also cites the economic benefits to the communities around the mine as well as the tax benefits from payroll, coal severance, and mineral resource taxes for the surrounding counties and the state of Illinois.

“The total local, state, and federal revenues generated by the continuation of this Mine are approximately $78 million annually,” it says.

A representative from Murray Energy, the parent company of Williamson Energy, did not reply to a request for comment.

Anyone interested in providing a public comment on the project should submit written comments to 1021 North Grand Avenue East, Post Office Box 19276 Springfield, Illinois 62794-9276. According to the information sheet, commenters should provide: “his or her name, address and the nature of the issues raised and the evidence supporting those issues. Commenters may include a request for public hearing.”

Also, permit number IL0077666 and 7516c must appear on each comment page according to the information sheet. Comments will be accepted until 11:59 p.m. Aug. 12.

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isaac.smith@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

On Twitter: @ismithreports

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