“Support coal or sit in the dark.” That phrase is familiar in the coal-burdened areas of Central Appalachia, but now some who supported coal are finding themselves out of work, abandoned by coal—many too injured by coal mining to work elsewhere—surrounded by a crumbling state infrastructure and declining population. The reality is that coal production is shifting from Appalachia to the Illinois Basin and farther west, and while some in central and southern Illinois are excited at the prospect of new jobs—even if temporary and dangerous—there’s a reason the late Mountain Keeper Larry Gibson said “Coal keeps West Virginia poor.”
Locally, Hallador Energy subsidiary Sunrise Coal, LLC, is seeking a permit for its Bulldog Mine site 30 minutes southeast of Urbana, near Homer and Allerton. Hallador Energy claims the Bulldog Mine will employ 300 people at $18 to $24 per hour, or approximately $36,000 to $48,000 per year, implying these jobs will be local jobs. They don’t mention the advertisements running in Appalachia encouraging laid off miners to move to the mines in Illinois. It’s more likely that Hallador will hire experienced miners from far away, instead of training new miners. The coal companies here are not above making the same hollow promises as coal companies in Appalachia.
I moved to Illinois last January after spending the better part of five years working with people in West Virginia and across Appalachia to stop strip mining, often referred to as mountaintop removal. It’s nice to live somewhere that has good water, no elevated levels of cancer and birth defects, and where a Friends of Coal sticker is not similar to a Little Red Book. The coal industry is always full of promises, PR events and campaign contributions, but they’re short on living up to those promises or rosy PR pictures. People living in Champaign and Vermillion counties should work together to prevent a coal relapse here, now.
My friend’s dad worked decades for the coal industry, giving them his best years. After the industry all but got rid of the union, and when they were done with my friend’s dad, they quickly dropped him without a pension. Now he’s too injured from coal mining to work, but has been agonizing through months of tests and waiting for doctors to be available to prove that he’s disabled.
A common defense of coal industry supporters is that coal mining is highly regulated, including surprise inspections by the federal government. However, in places like West Virginia, where there’s been more attention focused on the coal industry in recent years, coal mine managements are being convicted of illegally warning mine site workers that inspectors were on their way so the miners could quickly get everything into compliance for the brief inspection visit. Private labs like Appalachian Labs, who routinely test water quality for the mine companies, have come under recent scrutiny for substituting the samples with clean water—water monitoring is a “self-regulating” process. Community and environmental groups in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia have petitioned the federal government to take back state oversight and enforcement of some federal mining and environmental laws, because those states don’t effectively enforce the laws. Without effective enforcement and oversight, regulations and inspections are meaningless, and Illinois could be guilty of the same thing.
Citizens Opposing Pollution, an advocacy group in Clinton County, Ill., filed a petition in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Illinois on October 15, 2014, asking the federal government to revoke the Illinois mining program. The Writ of Mandamus, in Citizens Opposing Pollution v. Sally Jewel, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, asserts that Illinois’ ineffective oversight and enforcement of coal refuse facilities has caused the Pearl Sand Aquifer to be polluted beyond suitability as a drinking water source.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is currently reviewing the Bulldog mining permit, and held an informal conference about the permit in Georgetown, Ill., on Oct. 7. At that hearing, a geologist who worked with coal during his career testified that Hallador’s responses in the permit application made no sense with regard to the mine or the permit, made no mention of critical geologic formations like a drinking water aquifer, and showed no regard for Oakwood’s drinking water intake just downstream. For every mention I saw of exploratory bore holes in Hallador’s application the company said each collapsed, which indicates a higher probability of subsidence than the company admits in their permit application.
One resident I spoke with who lives above the proposed underground portion of the Bulldog Mine described how Hallador has been getting some of their mineral leases signed by landowners. The resident said Hallador sent young attractive women to persuade men to sign a lease, and sent intimidating men to persuade women to sign. Hallador’s actions and permit responses do not inspire confidence in their ability or willingness to follow the law and run a clean, safe operation, let alone be honest with regulators, inspectors, neighbors or the public.
Many of the area’s residents who spoke in favor of the Bulldog Mine at the informal conference made the case that the watershed is already stressed from agricultural runoff, urban waste, pre-law mining and other sources, so the addition of a coal mine should be no big deal. However, these are reasons why we need to continue to clean up and safeguard the watershed from future potential harm, as mining pollution can render local water supplies unfit to drink.
I lived in Charleston, W.V., in January 2014 when Freedom Industries spilled Crude MCHM (4-methylcyclohexane methanol) just a mile upstream of the sole drinking water intake for 300,000 people in nine counties. Many in the surrounding counties receive water from the Charleston water plant because their nearby sources became too polluted by coal and gas extraction to be suitable for even treated drinking water. Crude MCHM is used in processing coal, an activity planned to take place at the Bulldog Mine literally on top of the drinking water aquifer that Hallador failed to mention in their permit application. It seems unimaginable to go weeks in the U.S. without water for drinking, bathing, cooking, or cleaning—but it happened, and that situation should not be repeated in Illinois.
Proponents of Bulldog and of coal claim that we need to mine more coal because the U.S. and Illinois need this “cheap” energy source. However, this rhetoric ignores the fact that coal is an international commodity that’s sold to the highest bidder. Not only does the U.S. ship coal to at least Asia, South America and Europe, the U.S. no longer needs to burn coal at its current pace. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal as a percentage of national electricity generation has decreased from nearly half the U.S. electricity supply in 2007 to 37.5 percent in 2012, the last year of available data.
The coal industry has made a name for itself in deception, extortion, blackmail, corruption and subversion of regulatory processes. Any short-term local economic benefit will be negated by long-term negative impacts on the environment and other economic activities like farming, as the coal industry goes after the high-hanging fruit. Champaign and Vermillion country residents should work with StandUpToCoal.org to convince the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to deny the Bulldog Mine permit.
Charles Suggs is an environmental justice activist who spent much of the last six years living in southern West Virginia. He has campaigned against dirty resource extraction, volunteering primarily in Appalachia with organizations including Mountain Justice (http://mountainjustice.org) and RAMPS (http://rampscampaign.org). Currently Charles is a web developer and gardener living in Urbana with his fiancé, and their cat Rebar.