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Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013 01:10 pm

Mine, all mine

EPA might sue coal company

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The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency is considering legal action against a Carlinville coal mine for violating pollution laws.

Testing in the spring of 2011 revealed excessive levels of manganese, chloride, sulfates and other potentially hazardous substances in groundwater near the mine operated by Macoupin Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Foresight Energy, which in recent years has become one of the state’s largest mining companies. In a Dec. 12 letter to the company, the EPA warned that it might sue for failure to correct the problems and abide by pollution statutes and permit conditions.

The letter seems to represent a sharpening of resolve by regulators who once said they didn’t want to use fines or other enforcement actions to get pollution cleaned up.

Macoupin Energy knew about pollution problems that were not yet fully measured when it purchased the mine three years ago. The purchase came after IEPA officials in a 2009 letter told the company that the agency planned to cooperate on pollution issues with the company.

It “is not our practice to bring enforcement actions or levy monetary penalties so long as the new owner/operator is making good faith efforts,” Robert A. Messina, then chief general counsel for the agency, wrote in the letter.

Macoupin Energy CEO Michael Beyer reminded Julie Armitage, an IEPA lawyer, of the 2009 promise in a letter dated July 12, and he said that the company has worked hard to address pollution issues.

“Since its 2009 purchase of the mine, Macoupin has expended a significant amount of time, energy and money to study the location, extent and nature of the groundwater contamination,” Beyer wrote.

The company declined comment.

Connie Tonsor, managing attorney for the IEPA’s division of legal counsel, said that company officials since receiving the Dec. 12 letter have met with regulators who must now decide the next step. Referring the case to the state attorney general’s office is one possibility, she said. There is no timeline for a decision, she added.

The letter was mailed about the same time as the company announced that it was laying off 65 of the mine’s 115 employees and cutting production in half. Phil Gonet, president of the Illinois Coal Association, said he is aware of the company’s issues with environmental regulators, but he does not believe that the threat of litigation played any role in cutbacks at the mine.

“It’s a viable mine,” Gonet said. “My guess is, the market just wasn’t supporting the amount of coal that was being taken to market.”

Foresight, the mine’s parent company, opened a mine in Hillsboro last year that is more productive and efficient than the Carlinville mine, Gonet said, and so reducing production at Carlinville would make sense, especially given that demand for coal in the United States has been shrinking.

Lisa Salinas, who owns property near the mine and has long criticized state environmental regulators for not doing more to clean up pollution, isn’t convinced that the state is prepared to get tough with the company. She noted that IEPA allowed mining under a pollution discharge permit issued to the previous owner even though the permit was not transferable, according to the permit itself. Both the attorney general’s office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have asked IEPA to explain why a new permit was not required.

“If they were really serious…they (IEPA) would just refer the case over to the Illinois attorney general’s office,” Salinas said. “They shouldn’t even be actively mining.”

Salinas said another concern is contained in a cleanup plan submitted by the company to regulators last spring. Under the heading “Groundwater Use Prohibition,” the plan says that a “groundwater ordinance” might be pursued, either with the city of Carlinville or Macoupin County, for properties near the mine that have been impacted by polluted groundwater.

Salinas said that sounds like the mining company responsible for pollution wants to restrict groundwater use by folks who didn’t pollute.

“It’s not right to restrict other people’s rights when they’ve created the problem,” Salinas said. “It’s just another skirting of the issue.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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