MARION — Illinois Environmental Protection Agency had a hearing on allowing a Williamson County Mine to pump wastewater into the Big Muddy River and Pond Creek on Wednesday night.
Williamson Energy LLC and its parent company Foresight Energy filed an application for a NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit to allow Pond Creek Mine to discharge between 2.5 and 3.5 million gallons of water per day into the Big Muddy River.
In July, IEPA made a “tentative determination” to approve the request. The original public comment period on the application closed in August. Due to public interest, a hearing was scheduled for Dec. 18 to allow for additional public comment.
The hearing opened with comments from the Illinois EPA officials attending. Christine Zeival acted as hearing officer. Illinois EPA representatives included Darin LeCrone, permits section manager; Iwona Ward, permits section review engineer; Scott Twait, water quality section manager; and Stefanie Diers, division of legal counsel.
More than 50 people signed comment cards requesting to speak at the hearing.
Zeival gave some basic rules for the hearing, including a time limit. She told the audience that comments could only be made on the permit application and the issues related to that application.
Representatives of Williamson Energy gave comments but would not answer questions. Few questions were addressed by Illinois EPA. The audience was told questions would be answered in the document prepared at the end of the comment period, which is Jan. 17. Written comments will be accepted until that date in the Illinois EPA office in Springfield and will be given the same weight as oral comments.
Ward reviewed the basic information in the application. The water would be pumped through pipeline 12.5 miles to the Big Muddy River in Franklin County. The mine would be required to monitor chloride and sulfate levels in the discharged water and the river and report those levels to the IEPA.
Twait talked about the amounts of water flowing into the river, as well as river volume and concentrations of chemicals believed safe.
Clayton Cross of Williamson Energy told the crowd the mine could be in operation another 50 years at its current level of production. He also talked about the families that depend on the mine to make a living.
He said they face two issues: increasing amounts of groundwater that could block ventilation and escape tunnels along with the chemicals in that groundwater. The company believes releasing the water into the Big Muddy won’t have any effect on aquatic life and little effect on river levels.
The first speaker was Clare Killman. She tried to ask Illinois EPA officials if they were sellouts if they approve the application. She was topped by the hearing officer for asking personal questions, so she sat down.
Nick Smaligo said he could not separate the subjects addressed in the application from problems with the mining industry itself. He added that the industry is in “terminal structural decline.”
The hearing drew a mix of residents from across Southern Illinois. There were representatives of environmental groups, concerned citizen organizations, and people who live along the Big Muddy or depend on it for a living.
Mike Ellet, a licensed state plumber, was raised on the Big Muddy River in Blairsville. He remembered two occasions when the Big Muddy was poisoned in 1953 and 1959. Both times it killed the fish and animals near the river.
Lucia Amorelli lives near one of the Big Muddy’s tributaries and swims and kayaks in the river. She researched and found that Williamson Energy had 45 violations on the outfall of dirty water from 2015 to 2017.
Jerry Worthen owns a farm on the Big Muddy that has been in his family since 1836. It is a Centennial Farm. His son raises grain in fields that flood almost every year.
“I understand they need coal, but most of time it’s going overseas to China or Japan."
A determination will be made on the application after Jan. 17, 2020.
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