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Scrapbook: Activists Get to Work amid an Uncertain Energy Future in Illinois

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August 17, 2011

Activists Get to Work amid an Uncertain Energy Future in Illinois

Water monitoring in Montgomery County
Taking water samples in Montgomery County, Illinois.

There's a quiet battle simmering in President Obama's old stomping grounds as Big Coal executives from Appalachia look due west for friendly places to expand. Coal barons armed with loads of cash and political connections have yearned to transform the Illinois Basin into their own playground. That's why, with at least 11 permit applications for new coal mines or expansions on the docket, the state's energy future is facing a crucial fork in the road.

"We're at this critical time in Illinois," says Cindy Skrukrud, the Illinois Chapter's Clean Water Advocate. "We've appealed permits for two mines –- a long wall mine and a strip mine. We're dealing with new mines, others trying to expand, and others that aren't keeping with their permit restrictions."

With assistance from the Sierra Club's Water Sentinels program, activists and volunteers are battling these developments on multiple fronts –- through the court system, public hearings, and on the ground. Last month, seven local activists traveled to Pittsburgh for a training put on by Citizens Coal Council on the ins and outs of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the federal mining standards law routinely ignored by Illinois coal companies.

Water monitoring outside Deer Run Mine

"It's a struggle to get the mines to follow regulations. But even more so, we have to battle our own state agencies," says the Chapter's Conservation Committee Chair Joyce Blumenshine, who attended the training. "There are many ways the law isn't being followed."

About 60 activists and attorneys attended the training to talk about how the 25-year-old legislation could leverage the fight against coal. The Chapter has partnered with Prairie Rivers Network, Citizens Against Longwall Mining, and Heartland Coalfield Alliance, and has had immense help from the Water Sentinels.

Cindy Skrukrud sampling near a coal mine site
Cindy Skrukrud taking stream samples at the North Canton Mine, Fulton County.

"Thanks to the Water Sentinels, we have two new communities of volunteers in mining areas actively doing water monitoring," Joyce says. "This is huge. Thanks to the help of the Water Sentinels, we have data that our state mining office doesn't even collect. We can show how vital these headwater streams and tiny tributaries are because they are full of life."

Several coal companies here routinely break the rules without fear of repercussions. One site in particular -- Industry Mine, a surface coal strip mine, in McDonough County –- has docked 300 water-related permit violations over a 5-year period. The mine's excess overflows into Grindstone and Willow creeks, which feed into the La Moine River, a tributary of the Illinois River. After the issue dragged on for several years, the state Attorney General's office finally acted only after the Sierra Club and other groups sent a 60-day legal notice.

Industry strip mine in Illinois
An overhead shot of forest destruction from Industry Mine in McDonough County.

Some residents at nearby coal sites have reported health problems, like in this case where groundwater was contaminated near a 400-acre Exxon site in Clinton County. Loads of "iron, sulfides, and chlorides" have leaked into the aquifer adjacent to the Kaskaskia River. But because of weak state oversight, the plot has not been designated a hazardous waste area.

There's fear that the Land of Lincoln will eventually become a coal exporter. The coal industry cannot contain its excitement by the prospect. Peabody Coal and other companies are positioning to transport Illinois coal down the Mississippi to the docks for the Gulf with a one-way ticket to a foreign country.

Whether the regulatory agencies will accommodate Big Coal or listen to their increasingly angry citizens will determine the state's direction for a generation. With this in mind, activists and residents who've called Illinois their home their whole lives feel that it's crunch time.

"Illinois still thinks of itself as a coal state because we have a long history with it," says Cindy. "We have to keep fighting the idea that we'll continue as a coal state and keep doing what we've been doing for clean energy. The state has created 10,000 jobs in the wind-energy field. We have to keep working to keep clean energy a priority."

Photos courtesy Joyce Blumenshine.

-- Brian Foley

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