CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois can often be a place of tense convergence. The land between two rivers is cherished by many for a multitude of reasons.
An application by the Pond Creek Mine, located in Williamson County about 14 miles south of the Rend Lake dam, to discharge waste water into t…
Some, when looking at the hills, valleys, rivers and lakes, see a place of immeasurable beauty, grand enough to want to wrap their arms around it if they were big enough.
Others, while recognizing the beauty, see something else, too: a livelihood. Underneath these same hills, valleys, rivers and lakes lie seams of coal — for generations, the backbone of the Southern Illinois' economy. The mines may be shrinking, and with them, the number of miners making a living from coal. But, the job underground is in the DNA of this place and many of its people.
It's at this intersection where these two groups meet and often find themselves at odds. Currently, that tension centers around a proposal from Williamson Energy, which operates Pond Creek Mine in Williamson County for Foresight Energy, which is owned by Murray Energy Corp.
The application is to build a pipeline to pump millions of gallons of mine wastewater into the Big Muddy. The water would be pumped out of mine shafts as it seeps in, and this is necessary to keep miners safe, according to the company’s proposal.
As previously reported in The Southern, the proposal from Williamson Energy was made to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and seeks permission to discharge between 2.5 million and 3.5 million gallons of high-chloride water per day into the river. A public comment period for the proposal ended in November. Residents are now waiting to learn whether the IDNR will grant the company's request.
The 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 Illinois EPA stated in an email this past December, at the time The Southern's first story ran, that chloride and sulfate are toxic to aquatic organisms in amounts above accepted water quality standards.
According to plans proposed by the company, the water would be diluted before being pumped into the river, causing no notable ecological concerns.
Residents and property owners aren’t so sure.
Fear and frustration
Dave Freeman is afraid of a day when the fish won’t bite.
High water covers a lot of Freeman’s beloved campsite that sits on the Big Muddy River near Zeigler. It’s a sticky day in May, and the mosquitoes are thick — the water comes a third of the way up a nearby flagpole. Freeman said he’s seen some monsters pulled out of this river, but knows a day might come when fishing lines come up empty.
Driving up to the property, Freeman points out that he mows the lane leading to the campsite as little as possible in order to leave habitat for rabbits and other “critters.” He’s spent most of his life on the river and in the woods. Pointing through the trees, he said he “caught some of (his) first fish right there on a throw line.”
Freeman said the proposal to pump high-chloride water into the Big Muddy gives him pause, though he said he didn’t know all the details and didn’t want to speak definitively about it. That said, he pointed out that the river has already seen more than one fish kill as the result of polluted tributaries.
“You ought to see the livers in these fish,” he said, indicating that they are abnormal, he suspects, because of pollution in the water.
Freeman said he is concerned about the news he heard that the nearby Pond Creek coal mine is planning on dumping wastewater into the Big Muddy. The high-chloride water, he said, would be bad for aquatic life up and down the river.
He would know; he’s spent most of his life as an outdoorsman. He remembered a time when wastewater from the city of Herrin accidentally made its way into the Big Muddy about 30 years ago. It was one of the biggest fish kills Freeman can remember. He doesn’t want to see that where he sends his grandkids to swim and fish.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources should deny the Pond Creek Mine request to discharge waste water into the Big Muddy River.
Local concern over the proposal by Williamson Energy to dump contaminated water into the Big Muddy came to a head last year when concerned citizens showed up to a public comment hearing in Benton held by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In attendance were representatives from Williamson Energy, as well as state officials from IDNR.
Williamson County property owner Charles DuBose spoke during the meeting. DuBose is a retired geotechnical engineer and a licensed professional engineer and water well contractor, and he was concerned about the volume of high-chloride water the mine wants to pump into the river. He said at times it could be as high as 27 percent of the combined flow of the river.
Cade Bursell, of Murphysboro, also 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, 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.
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. Georgia De La Garza is a local environmental activist and said public notice of the meeting was put in a small local newspaper and did not get much attention.
After the public comment period, the questions presented during the hearing, which were not responded to that night, were bundled with other additional written comments and given to the decision-makers at the IDNR for consideration.
In December, an eight-page document detailed modifications that were needed to the application. These changes were made and turned in to the department in May, according to an email from Tim Schweizer of the IDNR.
A history of mistrust
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As he waits to find out the department’s decision on whether to allow the pipeline, DuBose has had considerable time to look at the damage the mining operation has had on his family home in rural Williamson County.
Down a long lane that cuts between a stand of whispering pine trees sits DuBose’s family cabin. His parents built it in the late 1970s. The back porch overlooks a massive lake and is surrounded by miles of hiking trails.
It was the plan for his parents to retire there, but ultimately it just became a nice place to visit, something DuBose said he did a lot.
This description of the property is no longer entirely accurate, though. The house sits empty — DuBose said it’s no longer inhabitable because the cabin’s cinder block foundation is sliding. There are cracks several inches wide on multiple sides. The lake that was once a jewel of the property sits empty. Now, a small flat-bottom boat is tied off next to a pit of dirt and mud.
All this is the result of mine subsidence caused by Pond Creek, DuBose said. He said the mining company tried striking a deal with him about his property, but the two parties never came together to sign a contract. He said after reading the permit application for the mining operation, he realized the company had misrepresented the minimum depth of coal under his property up to about 200 feet.
DuBose said he testified in Springfield and the administrator of the hearing agreed with his assessment that the coal was much shallower than the company let on, but nothing would be done.
“He said I didn't say it would make a difference, which was wrong,” DuBose said in a May interview with The Southern.
But there was damage — because of fracturing as the coal was removed, the water level in the well on his family’s property dropped by 55 feet, rendering it unusable, DuBose said.
DuBose said he has been fighting this for five years, and has become pretty embittered. He knows there was little he could do as far as the subsidence was concerned, but he at least wanted a level playing field in order to get the best deal he could. He said he just wanted the mining company to play by its own rules.
Freeman, too, said he takes issue with how mining companies often operate and how they look at the places they mine. He said he hopes mining companies start to look at the environment the way he does, but without hard facts and figures regarding Pond Creek’s request, he hasn’t been able to form a definitive opinion on that specific site.
DuBose’s problems with his family property don’t tie directly to the potential water pollution issue that he and so many others gathered to protest last year. However, he said it all adds to his distrust of the company and its word, leading him to further scrutinize claims that the pipeline would be safe.
Watching and waiting
Concern over the project goes beyond a few landowners and activists — at least one city leader is taking notice, too.
In a June 12 letter to the editor, Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens spoke out against the pipeline. In it, he said he sees both sides of the argument, but one has more weight in his eyes.
“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.
“At the same time, I have a responsibility as mayor to raise my voice when a proposal has the potential to harm my community.”
Stephens said as he looks out over a Big Muddy River that has been at flood stage for weeks, he has to ask, “why would I want even the cleanest additional water added to the Big Muddy?” He asked if anyone could give him reasons to support the proposal.
Stephens deferred to the words of Teddy Roosevelt in explaining his decision to stand against the pipeline.
“The Nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased; and not impaired in value.”
The reasoning Stephens asked for in his letter are hard to come by. Short of the technical details in the proposal from Williamson Energy to the IDNR, there is little communication from the company to the public — the questions asked during the public forum last year were recorded, but not discussed openly.
Jason Witt, a representative with Murray Energy, who owns a controlling interest in Foresight Energy and Williamson Energy, declined to comment on a series of questions sent by The Southern.
Stephens also criticized the application that Foresight has put in to the IDNR, pointing to the company as a basis for concern. He noted the numerous revisions the IDNR has asked the company to make before it can make a definite ruling on the request.
“I would assert that any business or organization that has to redo it’s homework in 24 different aspects wasn’t operating in good faith when submitting its initial application,” Stephens wrote in his letter. “At minimum, it seems that when preparing their application Foresight Energy lacked foresight.”
Time will likely be the only way to get answers for many of these questions.
— Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correctly identify Charles DuBose as a retired geotechnical engineer.