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Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 12:01 am

Going down

Landowner loses round in waste fight

A hearing officer has ruled against a landowner who fears that a plan to inject waste from a Carlinville coal mine into subterranean mining voids will pollute groundwater.

The mine already has problems with groundwater pollution, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which last year called in the state attorney general’s office to pursue enforcement action against Macoupin Energy, the mine’s owner. The company is a subsidiary of Foresight Energy, one of the state’s largest mining companies that came to Illinois more than a decade ago after company owner Chris Cline sold off mines in West Virginia and bet big on Illinois coal.

Cline’s company bought the mine from Exxon in 2009 knowing that it was inheriting groundwater pollution problems. On Monday, hearing officer Jack Price ruled against Lisa Salinas, who owns more than 300 acres near the mine and argues that injecting waste from coal processing directly into the earth instead of a massive above-ground impoundment would poison groundwater supplies.

The unlined impoundment is the suspected source of groundwater pollution already documented by the state Environmental Protection Agency. In light of existing pollution problems from the impoundment, Salinas and other mine critics say it makes no sense to inject waste directly into the ground.

But Price in his ruling that upheld a state Department of Natural Resources decision to allow waste injection said that he has heard from no experts who can prove fears will become reality. Part of the problem, Price found, is that there has been no testing to establish how much pollution, if any, is already beneath Salinas’ land.

“No person who can testify from personal knowledge nor professional expertise how underground pollutants will or will not move has been disclosed, nor was there any disclosure of any current pollution of her land or water,” Price wrote. “Without a baseline of pollution, no one can tell if any future pollution of petitioner’s (Salinas’) land has occurred.”

The so-called coal slurry from coal-processing operations is laden with poison. Ben Stout, a biologist from Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia retained by Salinas, says that a slurry sample taken in 2011 had the highest levels of toxic substances he’s seen in slurry samples he’s examined from more than a dozen operations in other states.

The Macoupin County sample had excessive levels of eight contaminants, Stout said, with more than 80 times the amount of arsenic considered safe under federal drinking water standards and more than 300 times the acceptable amount of cadmium. Arsenic is a suspected carcinogen that can cause skin and circulatory damage; cadmium can cause kidney damage.

“That’s pretty bad,” Stout said. “Just the notion that you could inject that in the ground is wrong. … It’s pretty obvious to me they didn’t look at the data.”

Salinas said she plans to appeal Price’s decision in court. She said that the state should have denied permission to inject waste as soon as it received slurry test results in 2011.

“Why something this simple is being allowed to slip through the cracks is unbelievable,” Salinas said.

Chemicals typically used in coal processing include a substance that recently leaked into the Elk River near a water treatment plant in West Virginia, prompting the state to warn people not to drink tap water. More than a dozen people were hospitalized, hundreds reported symptoms that included nausea and vomiting and schools in eight counties were closed.

West Virginia in 2009 stopped issuing permits to inject coal slurry into mining voids after a state-sponsored study failed to find that the practice hadn’t contributed to groundwater contamination that prompted lawsuits against mining companies, including one that was settled in 2011 for more than $35 million.

Jack Spadaro, former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy that trains mine inspectors, says that studies done as part of West Virginia lawsuits against mining companies accused of polluting groundwater were more damning than the 2009 probe that was deemed inconclusive.

“The studies done in the lawsuits were very conclusive,” said Spadaro, who has also reviewed data from the Carlinville operation. “They were done by experts. I was one of them.”

Spadaro says he believes that injecting coal slurry from the Macoupin mine into the earth would violate federal environmental law, but he concedes that such injection has been permitted in Illinois and elsewhere.

Why?

“That’s what happens in all of these places, Illinois and West Virginia, where there’s political control of the regulatory agencies,” Spadaro says. “The things that are done are preposterous and in clear violation of the law, but it’s allowed to go on because of a permitting process that provides cover for the people who are violating the law.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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