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Thursday, Feb. 26, 2004 12:25 pm

Gob story

Exxon pulled out of its Clinton County coal mine nearly a decade ago. Locals still live with the mess.

art861
Cover: Dot and Wilbert Timmerman by “gob pile.”
Photograph by Jennifer Silverberg

Dot Timmerman feared the Christmas of 1999 might be her last. Doctors had just discovered a cancerous tumor below her left eye and behind her nose. She was told surgery wasn't possible; radiation and chemotherapy were her only options.

On the Friday after Christmas, Dot and her husband, Wilbert, traveled to St. Louis's Barnes-Jewish Hospital from their home near Albers, Ill., a Clinton County farm community of 900 people about 45 miles west of Mt. Vernon. Wilbert sat beside his wife as a nurse injected a thin needle into Dot's arm. For the next seven hours, the chemotherapy drug cisplatin flowed through her veins. When they returned home that night, Dot was sicker than she had felt in all her 67 years.

Just when the Timmermans thought things couldn't get any worse, they did. When they turned on the water faucet, nothing came out: The well that drew water from an underground aquifer to their home had run dry. "I was so sick," Dot remembers. "You try to use the bathroom and there's no water and you're throwing up every time you turn around."

Wilbert, who's now 75, carried water from the couple's hot tub to flush the toilet every time Dot vomited. For cooking and drinking, they bought water in town, and for showers they drove to the houses of their two daughters, who both live 20 miles away.

"We had no water anywhere," Wilbert recalls. "The pond went dry, the natural springs dried up."

The Timmermans spent $5,000 to drill a new, deeper well. It was so cold outside that the well company's equipment kept breaking down. But finally, after ten days, they had water again.

Dot continued with chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the tumor disappeared. But the next year, Wilbert was diagnosed with prostate cancer. And in 2002 Dot learned that a lump in her breast was malignant.

"Since 2000, it hasn't been very fun around here," Wilbert says with a chuckle. It's easier to laugh nowadays, because so far their cancer treatments have been successful.

Wilbert and Dot sit at the dining-room table in the modest brick house they built in 1964. Dot's light-brown, curled hair frames her ivory face. She smiles as Wilbert, her burly, silver-haired husband of 52 years, reminisces about buying two-cent cans of beer during his tour in Korea and winces when he describes how he lost two fingers to a table saw. The couple raised their three children in this house, only a few miles from the farms where they both grew up.

Out the window, the Timmermans can see what they believe is the source of all their problems -- the cancers, the dry well and ponds, the arsenic that was discovered last year in their new well, the coal dust that has blown across their land for eight years.

Across Hunter Road, exactly 835 feet from the Timmermans' front door, stands a 50-foot-high berm that encompasses 360 acres of waste that was generated during the 19 years the Monterey Coal Company, a subsidiary of Exxon, mined coal in the area. Since 1991 the state of Illinois and Exxon have known the groundwater beneath the waste pile is contaminated. The company has been pumping water out of the aquifer ever since, in order to prevent the underground pollution from spreading.

In 2001 the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency announced it would sue ExxonMobil (Exxon and Mobil merged in 1999) for its contamination of the Pearl Aquifer, a shallow, 10,000-acre groundwater source from which the Timmermans and other Clinton County residents have tapped their drinking water for decades. But a year later the agency signed an agreement promising not to sue if the petrochemical company paid $1 million to help build a public water system that would provide an alternative for residents who lived near the waste pile. As part of the settlement, ExxonMobil admitted no guilt in contaminating the aquifer.

Many residents think the company got off too easy. The state kicked in an additional $800,000 to complete the extension of water lines to rural residents. In addition, ExxonMobil has received more than $3 million in state grants over the past three years for another coal mine the company owns 70 miles north in Carlinville.

"One million dollars to Exxon is nothing," Dot Timmerman scoffs. "It's like me going to the Germantown IGA and buying a loaf of bread."

As part of the settlement agreement, ExxonMobil must also pony up an estimated $6 million to cover the waste pile and continue pumping 600,000 gallons a day out of the aquifer, at an annual cost of $100,000. The company must also pay to construct a three-mile pipeline to discharge the contaminated groundwater and other liquid waste into the Kaskaskia River.

Critics say the method of covering the pile is an inexpensive fix that won't significantly reduce groundwater pollution. They also question the wisdom of pumping and dumping contaminated water into the Kaskaskia -- which is a source of drinking water for 30,000 people living downstream -- for the next 100 years. And while locals are relieved to have clean drinking water, some feel ExxonMobil should pay their monthly water bills, since they can no longer drink from the wells they paid for. They also complain that pumping by ExxonMobil is drying up the ponds and wells that they continue to use to water their animals and crops.

Some residents who live near the waste heap felt betrayed when state officials announced they would not sue ExxonMobil. They blame the leftover coal refuse for a litany of illnesses -- cancers, miscarriages, sinus problems, stomach ailments, respiratory disorders and chronic pain. One resident made a videotape of her pet rabbit as it desperately gasped for air before it died the next day. Another homeowner's teenage sons found a deformed frog in their pond before the pond dried up.

"We do not believe there's any constituent from the mine that has caused illnesses among local residents," asserts Bob Davis, an ExxonMobil spokesman in Houston.

Dot Timmerman disagrees. "They're killing us slowly," she says.

The wind blows strong and cold across the flat horizon as Dot and Wilbert Timmerman survey the 80 acres around their house, where Wilbert once farmed soybeans, wheat, corn and cattle. When they bought the property from Dot's dad in the mid-1960s, he'd already sold the underground mineral rights to Exxon. In the early 1970s, Exxon returned to Clinton County and began buying ground from the Timmermans' neighbors, paying them four times the land's value.

"Every night we'd get home from work and here would be that car sitting on that side of the house," Dot recalls. "A guy from Texas. And he wanted us to sell this property to him. We said we didn't want to sell. We had just built this house."

The man from Texas came back every day for months, Dot continues. "Finally he came one day and he said, 'We'll give you ten days. Either you sell for what we're offering you, or we'll do it by eminent domain.' "

"We couldn't stop progress," Wilbert says. "Or that's what they said it was."

Exxon let the Timmermans keep their home and five acres. Then they watched as a coal mine was built around them.

Most people in the farm communities of Albers, New Baden, Looking Glass, Damiansville and Germantown welcomed the Exxon mine, which provided as many as 700 good-paying jobs as well as healthy tax revenues to Clinton County and local school districts.

"Everyone looked at it as an opportunity," says Germantown's mayor, Gerald Kohnen. "The mine did pay well. It's a dangerous job to go down there. It was good for the economy -- it was jobs for younger guys getting out of school."

"It gave the whole area a shot in the arm," seconds Jennifer Malacarne, whose husband worked at the mine. "This mine had good top, so they didn't have nearly as many cover-ups, where the mine falls in. They could stand up straight, they weren't bent over. It was perceived as a good thing, to start with."

In 1977 Exxon's Monterey Coal Company began extracting coal at what was known as the Monterey No. 2 mine. The mining permit issued by the state of Illinois allowed the company to mine up to 12,000 acres, making Monterey No. 2 the state's fifth-largest producer. Miners toiled more than 300 feet beneath the earth's surface, operating machinery that snatched foot-long chunks from ancient coal seams, then placed them into rail cars and finally onto conveyor belts that lifted them to daylight.

Once the subterranean treasure was extracted, it was cleaned with water to remove shale, rock and dirt. That coarse material, called gob, was used to build the walls of an aboveground impoundment that held a mixture of water and fine particles of coal and dirt, as well as more gob. The good stuff, meanwhile, was stored in silos until it was poured into railroad cars bound for the power plants of Indiana. According to the trade journal Coal Week, Exxon had a 25-year contract to supply coal to PSI Energy Inc. of Plainfield, Ind.

Exxon's Monterey No. 2 mine annually delivered three million tons of coal, valued at $90 million, to PSI. But in 1996 PSI bought out the contract, which hadn't been scheduled to expire until 2002. Both companies reportedly said high-sulfur coal mined in Illinois was no longer competitive; PSI could buy low-sulfur coal from western states and avoid costly air-pollution regulations. "Without the current contract, continued operation of the mine is not viable long term and the mine will be closed," Exxon told Coal Week in 1996. The amount PSI paid Exxon to cancel the contract was not disclosed.

Miners at Monterey No. 2 were furious when the facility was shut down after 19 years of operation. Many would have needed to work only one more year in order for their retirement benefits to fully vest. When they closed the mine, Monterey Coal sealed all of the shafts and tore down all of the buildings. And when the company pulled out of Clinton County, they left behind a colossal garbage dump.

Locals refer to the 360-acre mass of muck as the gob pile. Gob, a sticky mixture of subterranean rock, dirt and coal, forms the exterior of a volcano-shaped heap that contains millions of tons of liquids and solids left over from the mining process. In an aerial photo, the coal-black stain on the land is a stark contrast to the quilt of neatly cut squares of farmland all around it, dotted with modest houses, tidy barns and thousands of acres sown with corn and soybeans.

When mining commenced at Monterey No. 2 in 1977, Exxon needed a place to dispose of the unwanted material that came out of the mineshafts. A consultant's report prepared for Exxon two years later indicates that the company dug a six-foot-deep pit and dumped liquid and solid waste only a few feet above the water table, which is as shallow as ten feet in some places. That pit became the base of a waste pile that grew to its current height of 50 feet.

Over the years, contaminants trickled through the silty clay beneath the gob pile into the Pearl Aquifer, confirms Bill Buscher, a supervisor for the Illinois EPA's water bureau. In 1991 the state ordered Exxon to begin pumping water out of the aquifer to prevent the spread of pollution underground.

But another eight years would pass before the state officially cited the company for violations. "That was the first written notification," Buscher says. "We were well aware of the problem and we were working on it."

Groundwater samples taken in 1999 indicated levels of iron, manganese, sulfate, chloride and total dissolved solids that exceeded state and federal water-quality standards. State regulations do not require that water beneath the pile be regularly tested for heavy metals, even though coal and coal waste contain a veritable who's who of toxic metals including arsenic, cyanide, lead, cadmium, beryllium, mercury and chromium.

In 2002 and 2003, the state Department of Public Health, acting on requests by several residents, tested the water wells of people living near the waste pile. Levels of manganese above 500 parts per billion were found in one quarter of the 33 wells sampled, according to a report prepared by the health department.

"You do need some manganese in your diet," says David Webb, an environmental toxicologist at the health department. "But long-term exposure to levels above 500 parts per billion can cause health-related problems."

State health officials advised that children in the area should not drink from water wells that tested high for manganese. "In children, the effects you might expect -- this is from long-term exposure -- might be muscle weakness, poor coordination and behavioral disturbances," Webb says.

Tests of the Timmermans' well revealed arsenic levels five times higher than federal drinking-water standards. Webb sent the couple a letter in April recommending they not drink their water because the amount of arsenic in it could increase their risk for cancer.

The Timmermans' well was the only one in which high levels of arsenic were found, but people living in the area still are concerned about the possibility of heavy metals contaminating the groundwater. Buscher of the EPA says arsenic in the Timmerman well may be from naturally occurring sources.

Lynn Dunaway, who works with Buscher at the EPA's water bureau, believes it's unlikely that metals are leaching from the waste pile into the aquifer, because pH levels in the groundwater have been found to be neutral. "Water with low pH is more likely to leach metals from the refuse," he says.

Though state health officials could not determine whether the coal-waste pile was the source of the private wells' high manganese levels, they recommended that a public water supply be built for residents near the site. A September 2003 Department of Public Health report says the agency also could not determine whether the cancer rate was higher for people living near the gob pile, because the population around the site "is too small to be statistically valuable."

In its agreement with the state, ExxonMobil does not admit that it contaminated the aquifer at all, and Buscher says underground contamination has not spread beyond the 800 acres owned by the mine. "There is no correlation," he asserts, between high levels of manganese in private wells and ExxonMobil's contribution of $1 million to a community drinking-water system.

Jerry and Lana Korte check in with a teenage boy who's selling eggs at their farm on Illinois Route 161 near Germantown. The Kortes operate an egg and produce stand, as well as a silage business and a used-car lot on 40 acres located three-quarters of a mile north of the coal-waste pile.

Two days before Christmas, plenty of people have stopped in to buy eggs for their holiday feasts. Inside the chicken house, the smell of dung is overwhelming, but at least it's warm. In the summer the Kortes grow and sell asparagus, strawberries, pumpkins, tomatoes and popcorn and make homemade jam and wine. Today white kittens follow Jerry and Lana around as they walk from the chicken house to the equipment shed. Jerry's breath hangs in the cold air as he points to the faded paint on the side of their barn and paint chipping off the rotting windowsills of their house. He sticks a knife into the soft wood that holds up his shed. "Everything is rotting away," he says. "[The coal dust] has stripped all the paint from the barn."

Though their businesses are still here, the Kortes no longer live at the Germantown farm where Jerry grew up. In 2002 they decided to move 15 miles west to Mascoutah, after water the color of coffee flowed from their kitchen faucet. When they had the water tested by an independent lab, the lead content was 30 times higher than federal drinking-water standards.

In the kitchen of their new house, Jerry pops a videotape into the 13-inch TV that's perched atop a white, 1960s-era Kelvinator refrigerator. "This was a dust storm in September 2001," he explains as the tape begins. "It went on for 12 hours." On the video, horses graze in the foreground as a wall of black dust hovers behind them. It looks as though smoke is rolling across the prairie. "Unbelievable. That's what we're breathing," he says.

Jerry says the dust storms got worse after the mine closed in 1996. Because Exxon was no longer pumping water into the gob pile, the fine materials in the slurry began drying out. When the wind howls across the flat farmland of Clinton County, it picks up the coal dust, swirls it around and spits it out onto crops, barns and houses.

In 2002, after years of complaints from residents, the state EPA cited Exxon for violating air-quality laws. Inspectors did not fine the company, however, because "they were actively working to solve the problem," agency spokesman Mark Britton says.

Last March the Kortes filed a $50 million lawsuit against Exxon, alleging that their health, businesses and property have been injured because of air and water pollution associated with the coal tailings.

Lana Korte, who is 46 but looks much younger, describes migraine headaches that left her incapacitated for days. "I couldn't handle lights or smells. I'd stay in the house on the couch with a blanket over my head," she says.

Jerry Korte says he began overheating in the summers and hated working outside because his skin became blistered. He believes that high-sulfur coal dust was combining with his sweat to form an acid that burned his arms, face and eyes.

"I would get up in the morning and cough for four hours," recalls Korte, who is 50. "From 6 to 10, I'd sit in the chair with Kleenex."

After the Kortes moved, they say, their health problems disappeared. But they're worried about the future. "Am I afraid I'm going to develop cancer?" Jerry asks. "Yeah. And I'm afraid my wife will develop cancer."

At just after three in the afternoon, Germantown schoolchildren are walking home bundled in their coats. They pass cozy Victorian houses in this bedroom town of 1,100 that boasts Cardinals Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst as its favorite son. Inside the two-room city hall, ten people, including the town's mayor and road commissioner, have gathered to discuss the state's plan to clean up the waste heap on the edge of town.

"That gob pile -- that's all we got out of the whole mine," says road commissioner Don Langenhorst.

Everyone here wants ExxonMobil to cover the waste, but they say the company's plan will do little to prevent rainwater from falling onto the pile and leaching contaminants into the aquifer below. Under the proposed clean-up strategy, two and a half feet of tightly compacted soil would blanket the waste. Lime would be added to raise the pH of moisture that saturates the pile, minimizing the possibility of acidic liquid leaching metals into the aquifer below. The method is common for capping coal-waste piles in the state, acknowledges Ronald Yarbrough, a geologist hired by Jerry and Lana Korte's attorney. But most waste piles don't sit atop water tables that are only ten feet underground, he says. "This is a unique situation, because you've got a groundwater problem here."

Robert Johnson, who represents investors hoping to buy land near the gob pile, says a synthetic covering similar to those used to cap municipal landfills should be used atop the waste to minimize the amount of moisture seeping through the pile. "Covering the pile with some dirt and pumping some water for a while will not remediate anything," he claims.

Illinois EPA director Renee Cipriano acknowledged in an October 28, 2003, letter to Johnson that the EPA preferred using a synthetic cover "because it would minimize infiltration to the greatest extent." But, Cipriano added, "[T]he synthetic cover would require very long term care to maintain its low permeability."

Animals could dig holes in the synthetic covering, allowing rainwater inside, argues Lynn Dunaway, of the EPA's water bureau. In addition, he says, with a soil-and-grass cover, rainwater will evaporate or be absorbed by plants on top of the pile before it ever reaches the aquifer.

Yarbrough scoffs at the idea that a soil covering is superior to rubber for keeping out rainwater. "Cost was part of the equation," Dunaway counters. "[Exxon] said if they were not spending money on a synthetic cover, they could spend it on a drinking-water system."

Jerry and Lana Korte's attorney questions why money played a role in the decision at all. "I think it would be good for the EPA to recognize that ExxonMobil is the third-largest corporation on earth," Penni Livingston says. "They have lots of money."

In 2002, the same year the state agreed not to sue ExxonMobil, the company posted earnings of $11.5 billion on revenues of $204 billion.

Jennifer Malacarne, who lives 20 miles south in Venedy, believes the coal waste should be relocated into a clay- or rubber-lined landfill away from any shallow aquifer. "Just like any other hazardous waste," she says.

But coal waste is not considered hazardous under federal regulations, notes EPA spokesman Britton. "It's not flammable, it has naturally occurring minerals," he says. "These aren't in the category of manmade toxic wastes."

Some residents, including road commissioner Langenhorst, question if water in the Kaskaskia River will be fit to drink after the contaminated groundwater and runoff from the pile is dumped into it. Langenhorst has refused to sign an easement for the pipeline, which would have to pass under the township's roads. "We probably can't stop them," he concedes. "But we can be a pain in their side for a while."

Effluent from the gob pile will contain sulfate levels that are nine times higher than drinking-water standards and chloride and manganese levels nearly twice the legal limit. Despite assurances from the state that the groundwater and runoff does not contain heavy metals such as arsenic, some people are upset that the discharge will only be tested for metals once every eight years.

At a hearing this past summer at the Albers American Legion Hall just west of Germantown, locals said they want Exxon to build a water-treatment plant to remove contaminants from the groundwater before it is dumped into the river. That would be too expensive and unnecessary, answered Larry Crislip, permit manager for the EPA's mine-pollution control program.

Under the proposed plan, the extracted groundwater would instead be routed through a series of ditches and ponds. Through contact with the air, iron and manganese levels would be reduced before the water reached the Kaskaskia. At the river, the effluent would come out of a twelve-inch pipeline on one bank. According to calculations provided by Exxon, water in the river will dilute contaminants to levels that make it safe to drink within 75 feet of the discharge point. The nearest intake for a rural water district is 25 miles downstream, state officials say.

At the hearing in Albers, Eric Netemeyer, a dairy farmer who lives near the gob pile, questioned whether there will be enough water in the Kaskaskia to dilute the effluent during dry summers. According to state officials, Exxon based its calculations on 1984 data from the state water survey, which predicted the Kaskaskia would only flow at 69 cubic feet per second in a worst-case drought scenario. But during most of the summer, water released from the dam on Lake Carlyle, 25 miles to the north, only flows at 50 cubic feet per second, says Jody Harris, a park ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dam.

"This summer, when we had this drought and we weren't getting any rain, the Kaskaskia River wasn't even flowing," Dot Timmerman asserts.

If the state grants a permit to discharge effluent into the river, Exxon's Monterey Coal Company will be required to sample river water three times each month and analyze it for sulfates, iron, chlorides, manganese, total suspended solids, pH and the ratio of alkalinity to acidity. That doesn't sit well with Michelle Langenhorst, who lives near the waste pile and is related to the road commissioner. During a hearing in August, she said residents who had independent tests done had results that were different than Monterey's. Who was keeping Monterey accountable? "So far, it been nobody," she said.

While a state inspector will occasionally visit the site, the EPA's Crislip admitted during the hearing that "this is an honor system on the sampling and analysis on their part."

That's not good enough for road commissioner Langenhorst. "I just think that the EPA should remember that they're the Environmental Protection Agency and not the Exxon protection agency," he said at the hearing. "As far as I'm concerned, Exxon and Monterey -- we really do not consider them neighbors, and I don't know of anybody around here that really does."

Back at Germantown City Hall, Gerald Kohnen, the town's six-foot, six-inch mayor, stands to leave with the rest of the bunch. The sun has set, and the cold night air meets them at the door.

Later, Kohnen speaks of the locals who come into his heating and cooling business and ask him what he thinks of the gob pile. "You look at that pile and the winds coming from that direction and you think: 'What am I breathing?' " one farmer told him recently.

"I tell them I don't know and I don't think our EPA knows either," the mayor goes on, "because they seem to be hiding their heads in the sand. Exxon is such a mighty company, and we don't have the clout with the government. I just know we need to get this thing solved."

© 2004 New Times Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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