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Thursday, April 10, 2014 12:01 am

Reform wave hits DNR

Changes come under pressure

 Pursuant to legal action from the state attorney general and amid a spate of bad publicity, the state Department of Natural Resources has agreed to reforms that include changes to permitting processes for coal companies.

Reforms to practices for issuing coal permits are contained in a March 24 settlement of a lawsuit filed against the department in 2007 by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who sued the department after it approved a permit for a 600-acre strip mine near Banner, about 70 miles north of Springfield in Fulton County. The lawsuit came amid fears of water pollution, and DNR ultimately reversed course in 2012, rejecting the permit application after initially approving it.

While lieutenant governor, Gov. Pat Quinn in 2005 joined the fight against the proposed Banner mine, organizing an online petition drive aimed at stopping the project. Nine years later, Quinn’s administration has agreed to a series of reforms aimed at fixing what critics say is a deeply flawed permitting process at DNR, which has long been seen as a friend of coal companies.

The agreement contains a number of provisions aimed at bringing DNR practices into conformance with state and federal mine regulations. Among other things, the department has agreed to provide earlier public notice when permit applications are received and to collect permit fees upfront, as required by law, instead of waiting until applications are approved. The department will post transcripts of public hearings on its website.

The department has also agreed to require applicants to appear at public hearings on permit applications and be prepared to answer questions from the public. The department has also agreed to remain neutral during hearings. The department will also complete and make public results of environmental reviews of permit applications to determine what impacts a proposed mine could have on endangered species and the environment before public hearings are held.

In a written statement, DNR director Marc Miller, appointed by Quinn in 2009, called the changes “major steps to improve transparency for our permitting decisions and provide stronger environmental protections within our regulatory programs.”

Some of the changes will require approval from the federal government and the state Joint Committee on Legislative Rules, a bipartisan committee of lawmakers tasked with approving rules proposed by state agencies. Chris Young, DNR spokesman, said that there is no timetable for implementing the changes, but the process could take “a few months.”

In addition to changing the department’s permitting process to settle the lawsuit, DNR in a separate effort plans to inspect coal ash ponds where millions of tons of ash from coal-fired energy plants are deposited each year. The state has more than 80 such ponds, and DNR plans to inspect them all within the next three months, according to Young. The ponds contain heavy metal and other hazardous materials that can potentially pollute groundwater. Spills from ponds in other states have polluted rivers and streams. About 20 ash ponds created after 1980 have permits, Young said, and DNR plans to require that the owners of the other 60 ponds obtain permits within the next 18 months.

The environmental reforms come after revelations in February that two top DNR coal regulators, both Democratic Party officials, had accepted political contributions from Foresight Energy, one of the state’s biggest coal companies that has made more than $1.4 million in campaign contributions in Illinois in the past five years, including more than $140,000 to help Quinn.

Tony Mayville, a DNR mine safety official and head of the Washington County Democratic Party who lost a race for the state House of Representatives last month, is on unpaid leave and facing disciplinary action for accepting thousands of dollars from Foresight even as he was responsible for regulating the company. Michael Woods, chairman of the Douglas County Democratic Party, was transferred from his position as acting director of DNR’s Office of Mines and Minerals after the Douglas County Democratic Party, which he chairs, accepted $14,000 in contributions from Foresight in 2012 and 2013, then transferred money to Democratic candidates and party groups outside Douglas County.

Outside the mining division, Ron House, director of DNR’s Office of Land Management, is being required to repay $7,200 in mileage reimbursements he received for commuting to work from his home. Travis Loyd, former DNR deputy director, was forced to resign in February following media reports that he had participated in professional bass fishing tournaments while on sick leave. The problem, according to DNR officials, wasn’t that Loyd had gone fishing – a doctor had recommended fishing as a way to relieve stress. Rather, he had violated a department policy prohibiting employees from earning money outside their jobs while on sick leave.

The department last week distributed a new ethics policy to employees and required them to sign it, Young said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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