Thursday, May 17, 2012

Now is the time to sort out potential environmental impacts of nearby coal mine

Now is the time to sort out potential environmental impacts of nearby coal mine

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As spring gives way to summer over the weeks to come, many residents of east central Illinois will respond to the call of local rivers, and for good reason. Beyond providing wildlife habitat and supplying drinking water for many communities, rivers offer some of our best opportunities for outdoor recreation nearby.

Many people also take it as a given that our rivers enjoy all of the protections they need, with schemes for flooding Allerton Park and damming the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River now decades behind us.

If you’re among those people, the news of an underground coal mine being planned on the border of Champaign and Vermilion counties ought to give you pause.

News reports in April revealed that officials with the Village of Homer have been working with the Sunrise Coal Company on a deal to supply the mine with water for use in coal processing. The water supplied by the village would be drawn partly from its treated wastewater, partly from drinking water wells near Ogden and possibly from the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River. The same reports also indicated the company intends to discharge some of the water used for coal processing at the site into the Olive Branch, a small tributary that will convey it to the Salt Fork.

Why should this be cause for concern?

That question was the basis for a conversation I had recently with Traci Barkley, who is a water resources scientist at Prairie Rivers Network, the Champaign-based conservation organization that works to protect waterways throughout Illinois.

Barkley pointed out that coal processing is a water-intensive activity, and the amount of water projected for use at the Sunrise mine is 750,000 gallons a day. That’s three times the combined water use of the nearby communities of Allerton, Fairmount, Broadlands and Homer. 

Can the resources available support the coal mines’ water use without negative impacts elsewhere? I have yet to find a clear answer to that, but it would be useful for the public to know what information about water supply Homer officials are relying on as they negotiate an agreement.

As someone who fishes and canoes the Salt Fork, I know firsthand that very little water flows there in the drier months of the year. I find it hard to imagine that stream flow would be unimpaired by a large new withdrawal. Because I wade in the river and pull fish out of it, I’m also concerned about the pollution that would enter it with the water discharged by the mine.

That’s because Illinois coal mines often have trouble meeting standards designed to protect water quality for drinking and wildlife.

Barkley pointed out that over the past three years nearly half of the 72 coal mines with active water pollution permits in the state have been out of compliance with their permits for six months or more, and that a third of them have been out of compliance for at least a full year.

Of course water use and water pollution are only two of many environmental impacts associated with coal mining. For people whose lives and livelihoods might be affected by the Sunrise Mine, now is the time to look into what those impacts might be.

Toward that end, the public is invited to participate in an open discussion about the proposed mine next week. The forum will take place on Wednesday evening beginning at 7:00pm in the Salt Fork Center at the Homer Lake Forest Preserve.

If your summer plans will take you to the river, maybe this should be your first stop.