With the death toll still mounting at a coal mine in Turkey, another southern Illinois coal miner lost his life this week, along with two West Virginia miners. The state of Illinois, meanwhile -- called out at public hearings for a brewing coal ash catastrophe -- handed out a controversial National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for a Peabody Energy strip mine in southern Illinois, placing the community of Rocky Branch one step closer to destruction.
Bottom line: Death by a thousand cuts policy in Illinois coal country.
And all the more reason for the growing sense of urgency in southern Illinois for a coalfields regeneration plan to transition to clean energy jobs.
"The death of individual miners is indeed tragic and unnecessary," said Sam Stearns, a former coal miner in Saline County, and long-time Shawnee Forest activist. "Also unnecessary are the thousands of deaths each year which are attributable to burning coal, as well as the displacement of entire communities for the sake of a few short-term jobs. This will be a focus of the Heartwood Forest Council in Ozark, Illinois, on Memorial Day Weekend. We have a unique program of experts ready to discuss how to stop mining deaths and how to keep communities alive through a just transition to sustainable energy jobs."
Last year, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources was singled out in an audit for its lack of mine inspectors, as required by state law.
This week's miner's death was the second fatality in the last seven months at the Sugar Camp MC I mine in southern Illinois. The SNL news reported today:
According to MSHA's Pattern of Violations Monthly Monitoring Tool, the mine met two of the four elements under one set of criteria for pattern violator status. The mine recorded 171 significant and substantial violations in the most recent 12-month period, over three times the criteria threshold of 50, and reported an injury severity measure of 2,197.8 -- more than five times the criteria's five-year average of mines of similar type and classification.
The abuse of the miner always goes hand-in-hand with the abuse of the land, as folks in southern Illinois know too well.
Case in point: While Gov. Pat Quinn hailed the state's clean water initiatives, the Illinois EPA released its "Responsiveness Summary" yesterday, as part of the approval of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for the Rocky Branch strip mine. The "Summary" includes standard bureaucratic replies to still unanswered community concerns about inevitable mining pollution and contamination of the Rocky Branch watershed and area waterways, as well as flooding and other unresolved problems.
Here are some typically cringe-worthy I-EPA replies: For question #16, on the cumulative impact of nearby mines, the I-EPA responded:
In the instance of the proposed mine, the nearest downstream water body that has been assessed by the Agency is Segment AT-05 of the Saline River. The existing water quality of this river contains the cumulative impacts of pollution from Will Scarlet mine and other NPDES dischargers in the upstream watershed. The pollutants typically associated with mining in Illinois (chloride, iron, manganese, and sulfate) have not been found to be contributing to impairment of this stream segment.
When asked in question #19, "why doesn't the Illinois EPA list the detriments of the proposed mining to the community in this section," the I-EPA essentially cut and paste from Peabody Energy public relations material:
This continue mining operation in Saline County would bring in tens of millions of dollars to the area by increasing the wealth of the region, generating additional value to manufacturing companies, generating additional revenue to wholesale trade companies, increasing the value of the health care sector, regional finance and insurance companies.
Health care sector? As in black lung disease, accidents and water contamination, perhaps.
In fact, the I-EPA admits at one point that it has failed to do any actual fact-finding research and relies primarily on Peabody data: For question #21:
21. Does IEPA fact check the analysis of the alternative treatment technologies listed here or are these answers just provided by Peabody mining?
The alternative treatment technologies summarized in the Antidegradation Assessment for this proposed permit were provided by Peabody. The onus of researching and assessing alternatives is on the Applicant, as this information is required in the permit application for any proposed increase in pollutant loading that necessitates a new, renewed, or modified NPDES permit. As required by 35 I ll. Adm. Code 302.105(c)(2)(C), the Agency uses all information, data, or reports from the Applicant as well as its own sources, and also relies on Agency experience with factually similar permitting scenarios. The Agency may "fact check" the alternatives information provided by the Applicant. In this case, this was not needed given the familiarity and working knowledge of Agency technical staff with projects of this nature.
One last nugget: Despite the fact that four out of the five members of the I-EPA public hearing committee publicly admitted in February, at the NPDES hearing in Harrisburg, that they had NOT bothered to visit the proposed mining area, the "Summary" blatantly contradicts their testimonies and states: "It is noted that a site reconnaissance visit was performed prior to the public hearing in order for the hearing panel members to become familiar with the local area, topography and relative location of proposed facilities and mining areas."
What's true, what's false? The confusion is part of the death by a thousand cuts policy.
Here are some more facts -- and cuts: According to the Illinois DNR website, "the Coal Mining Act stipulates that state mine inspectors must conduct inspections at least once a month at every coal mine in the state." However, a 2011 survey by the Prairie Rivers organization, assessing data from EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) based on reports ("discharge monitoring reports") submitted by the mine personnel, came to these conclusions:
Of the 72 coal mines operating with water pollution discharge/effluent (or NPDES) permits in Illinois,
- Only 12 have had inspections conducted by the Illinois EPA in the last five years.
- Over 35 have self-reported non compliance with their permits.
- In the last three years, 34 of these facilities (47%) have been out of compliance with their permit for 2 quarters (6 months) or more.
- In the last three years, 21 of these facilities (29%) have been out of compliance with their permit for 4 quarters (12 months) or more.
- In the last three years, 9 of these facilities (13%)have been out of compliance with their permit for 8 quarters (24 months) or more.
- In the last three years, 4 of these facilities (6%) have been out of compliance with their permit for 12 quarters - that means out of compliance for every month of the last three years.
- In the last three years, 12 of these facilities (17%) have had > 10 effluent exceedances.
- In the last three years, 3 of these facilities (4%) have had > 50 effluent exceedances.
- 17 of the 35 mines (49%) not in compliance had more than half of their effluents exceedances greater than 50% of the permitted limit
(i.e. Permit limit for total suspended solids = 70 mg/L, effluent violation ≥ 105 mg/L)
- 15 of the 35 mines (43%) not in compliance had more than half of their effluent exceedances greater than 100% of the permitted limit
(i.e. Permit limit for total suspended solids = 70 mg/L, effluent violation ≥ 140 mg/L)
- 15 of the 35 mines (43%) not in compliance had instances of permit violations in exceedances of 1000% of their permitted limit
(i.e. Permit limit for total suspended solids = 70 mg/L, effluent violation ≥ 700 mg/L)
- 14 of the 35 mines (40%) not in compliance had instances of permit violations in exceedances of 19900% of their permitted limit
(i.e. Permit limit for total suspended solids = 70 mg/L, effluent violation ≥ 13,930 mg/L)
- 8 of the 35 mines (23%) not in compliance had instances of permit violations in exceedances of 29900% of their permitted limit
(i.e. Permit limit for total suspended solids = 70 mg/L, effluent violation ≥ 20,930 mg/L)
- 6 of the 35 mines (17%) not in compliance had instances of permit violations in exceedances of 39900% of their permitted limit
(i.e. Permit limit for total suspended solids = 70 mg/L, effluent violation ≥ 27,930 mg/L)
- 2 of the 35 mines not in compliance had instances of permit violations in exceedances of 59900% of their permitted limit
(i.e. Permit limit for total suspended solids = 70 mg/L, effluent violation ≥ 41,930 mg/L)
- Another 25 have been in violation with their permit for not reporting whether their pollution discharges were in compliance with their permits. So, the Agency and the public do not know how these sites are operating.
- Only 12 have both submitted their reports AND shown they were in compliance with their pollution limits.
- Informal enforcement actions have been issued at 12 of the mine sites. Example of this is a letter to the permittee called a "Notice of Violation".
- No formal enforcement actions have been undertaken at any of the sites.
- No penalties for noncompliance have been assessed.
- Nineteen of these mines discharge pollution into streams that are already considered "impaired" by the Illinois EPA. That means that the streams are not clean enough to support their designated uses of either drinking water, support for aquatic life, or recreation. Of these, IEPA has evaluated that 17 of the coal mine operations may be a potential contributor to the cause of impairment.