HARRISBURG – It takes Rhonda Dillard some time to settle down after each blast.
The peaceful tranquility nestled in the rolling wooded hills east of Harrisburg that brought her and other families to the area decades ago is no more.
They remain steadfast in their resolve to stay in their homes, neighbors separated by cash-crop farms south of Illinois 13 but closer today perhaps than they ever have been since the nearby blasting started in the fall.
Each blast from the strip mine, hurling the earth into the sky to unleash coveted coal, brings with it phone calls between the neighbors to make sure everyone is OK.
“It’s unnerving because you are just going about your normal day, and you don’t have any idea when or if they are going to blast – it is exactly like an earthquake – and it takes you a while to settle down,” Dillard said.
Dillard was among the residents who fought Peabody Coal Co. from opening the Rocky Branch Mine, sharing the name of the community in which they reside.
During nearly a year’s time, they took their opposition to county, state and federal agencies that govern mine permits. They held protests over road closures sought by the mine, at times resulting in arrests.
Peabody’s approved permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources calls for a five-year operation of a 1,019-acre mine, portions of which would extend 300 feet from some homes.
Since filing its applications with various agencies in September 2013, Peabody has stood by the economic benefit the mine brings, providing jobs to hundreds in a region hungry for them. The Rocky Branch Mine is an extension of the company’s Cottage Grove Mine on the other side of the state highway near Southeastern Illinois College.
Numerous families have left the area. Others elected not to join the fight against Peabody, instead realizing the profit of leasing mineral rights to the coal mining giant.
Though the fight appears over, Stephen Karns and his parents, both 78, remain vigilant. When sirens announce a blast, Karns is ready with his camera, pointing it toward their farm across a white picket fence. A small ditch and thin line of trees serves to separate the grain farm and the growing gob pile on the other side.
Karns' mother, Rita, has written down every blast and every claimed repercussion, including cracks in and outside her home the family alleges have been caused by the blasting. Rita does not go so far to say that the health problems faced by her husband, Donald, emerged because of the mine.
“But it doesn’t help,” she said.
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While Dillard’s household has rearranged sleeping quarters to move farther from the powerful beams of lights and the maintained rumble of industrial equipment from the mine day and night, the younger Karns has not. Disabled, Karns struggles to sleep.
Karns is not opposed to coal mining. The jobs are needed. What upsets him is his belief that the mine and its impact on homeowners are being handled irresponsibly, he said.
“Peabody keeps saying, ‘We’re a good neighbor, we’re a good neighbor.’ Well, they’re not,” Karns said.
Allan Porter ran for – and won – a seat on the Saline County Board thinking his boisterous opposition to the mine would be strengthened. He continues to fight, proposing a mineral severance tax aimed at coal, as well as oil and gas.
The proposed ordinance remains under consideration, Porter said, reflecting on the semi-truck traffic that now hauls coal from the fields past his home off Old Illinois 13. He recalled a time his usually quiet wife called the mine.
“She said, ‘I don’t appreciate you trying to tear my house down,’” Porter said.
The idea of moving for Dillard, the Karns or Judy Kellen is non-existent. It’s home, they say.
While Kellen’s chickens and other animals roam near a small pond at her home, the Cottage Township 75-year-old trustee who served as one of the opposition’s staunchest champions seems distracted by worry.
An elected official, herself, she is troubled by what she claims is a failure of those who represent the people, whether federal, state or local. The future, she said, is at stake.
“The dealings we have had with our elected officials has pretty much shown us they are some of our worst enemies,” Kellen said.
“Nothing is going to change until we can elect people with a foresight for the future; people who know the meaning of justice for all, people who are willing to reverse existing unjust laws, people who will protect the state’s residents and not abuse their positions.”
Apparently, the blasting is far from over. What it will unearth remains to be seen.