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Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013 03:18 pm

Mining firm protests EPA tough stance

Agency earlier promised to play nice

A coal mining company that has fast become one of the state’s largest is crying foul over the threat of a lawsuit from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Macoupin Energy, a subsidiary of Foresight Energy, knew about groundwater pollution problems at a Carlinville mine when it met with state EPA officials at least twice in the fall of 2008 to discuss possible solutions before purchasing the site then owned by Exxon, according to a Dec. 31 letter to EPA officials from Michael Beyer, CEO of Macoupin Energy. At the time, the extent of pollution problems wasn’t known. Macoupin Energy, a subsidiary of Foresight Energy, consummated the purchase after the EPA agreed to work cooperatively with the mining company to address environmental concerns.

“Based on the agency’s assurances and commitments (and in view of the Agency’s current posture, in hindsight perhaps to its detriment), Macoupin purchased the mine site,” Beyer wrote.

In the often-blunt letter, Beyer late last year wrote that company officials were “surprised and frankly angered” that the EPA on Dec. 12 notified the mining company that it intended to pursue legal action to address violations of groundwater purity standards found beneath land near the company’s property.

Beyer attached a copy of a letter dated Jan. 21, 2009, in which Robert Messina, then chief legal counsel for the EPA, wrote that the state intended to “cooperate with Macoupin” and furthermore stated “it is not our practice to bring enforcement actions or levy monetary penalties” if the mine’s owner made good-faith efforts. In his six-page missive sent to regulators in December, the mining company CEO accused regulators of engaging in bait-and-switch and said that suing the mine to force compliance with environmental regulations would be unlawful, unwarranted and counterproductive.

So far, the EPA is holding firm.

In a Jan. 23 email to Illinois Times, Sherrie Elzinga, an assistant to Illinois EPA director John Kim, wrote that IEPA is preparing to refer an enforcement action to the state attorney general’s office.

“In 2012, it became clear to Illinois EPA that voluntary efforts by the company were not proceeding along the expected timeline,” Elzinga wrote. “That’s why the Illinois EPA sent to Macoupin Energy a notice of intent to pursue legal action.”

At the same time, however, the state is working with the company to figure out how to protect groundwater while preserving jobs and mining operations, Elzinga wrote.

Landowners near the mine don’t all worry about tests that show elevated levels of manganese and other pollutants in groundwater.

Joe Barnwell, a retired miner who lives less than a mile from the mine, says that he believes pollution concerns are overblown but nonetheless have prevented him from selling the 28 acres he’s called home for the past 24 years. He said he’s had his land on the market for five years, with three potential sales falling through due to worries about pollution.

“You can’t go anywhere in Illinois that hasn’t been mined,” Barnwell said. “I don’t know what it (legal action against Macoupin) would accomplish.”

But Lisa Salinas, a Florida resident who owns land near the mine and has long pressured the state to get tough with the mining company, sees hope. The EPA’s threat to sue came after federal environmental regulators and the Illinois attorney general’s office asked why IEPA allowed Macoupin to operate under a pollution-discharge permit issued to a prior owner that contained a provision stating that the permit wasn’t transferable. Salinas said that she believes pressure from those agencies convinced IEPA to get tough.

The month before IEPA threatened to sue Macoupin Energy, politicians throughout Illinois won election helped by cash from Foresight Energy, Macoupin’s parent company that has bought up billions of tons of Illinois coal reserves in recent years. Foresight since 2010 has doled out more than $1.25 million to politicians, including at least three who represent the Carlinville area. State Sen. Sam McCann, R-Carlinville, received $18,000; State Sen. Andy Manar, D-Staunton, got $11,530; State Rep. Wayne Rosenthal, R-Litchfield, got $2,250 from the company and another $500 from the Illinois Coal Association.

Neither McCann nor Manar nor Rosenthal could be reached for comment. Foresight officials declined comment. Salinas said that big campaign contributions are part of the way the coal industry does business.

“Unfortunately, it’s just the typical way that big bad coal games the system,” Salinas said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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