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Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011 02:50 pm

IDNR says mine stop order ‘premature’

AG’s office says public hearing required for Hillsboro mine changes


A series of permit revisions could allow Hillsboro Energy to change a coal slurry pond into an 80-foot tall, above-ground storage facility.

A few weeks ago, after concerned citizens told the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that Hillsboro Energy, LLC, had started building an 80-foot tall coal slurry impoundment without an approved permit, the state agency in charge of regulating mines ordered the company to stop construction or face enforcement action. A week later, when asked about the directive, IDNR says it issued the stop order “prematurely.”

Leaving a phone message in response to Illinois Times’ questions, IDNR spokesperson Chris McCloud said that the Aug. 23 stop order letter “was sent out prematurely. IDNR did not do its due diligence in gathering all the information it needed.” McCloud did not respond to follow-up phone calls and emails asking whether Hillsboro Energy – a subsidiary of West Virginia mining magnate Chris Cline’s Foresight Reserves – had in fact started construction of the proposed impoundment structure, and representatives from the company declined to comment.

Meanwhile, opponents of the Montgomery County Deer Run Mine project are criticizing IDNR and the mine for what they say has been a “piecemeal” approach lacking in public involvement.

Hillsboro Energy in February 2009 received initial approval for its Deer Run Mine operations, which included construction of a below-grade, excavated pool for holding coal slurry, the waste created when “washing” coal before it can be burned. The plans called for additional slurry storage in the future but didn’t specify design. In response to comments and objections detailed in IDNR’s approval of Deer Run Mine’s initial permit, regulators explicitly stated that “the structure in question is not an impounding structure.”

Since then, the company has received approval for changing the refuse area through multiple insignificant permit revisions – which don’t require public participation – and is now seeking approval of a significant permit revision for an 80-foot tall, above-ground impoundment that will hold coal slurry above natural elevation. The walls of the impoundment would be made out of 3.92 million cubic yards of coarse coal, and the structure would be classified as a “high hazard potential dam,” because, if it were to fail, there’s a high probability that “loss of life and/or property downstream of the dam would be substantial,” according to the permit revision application. The impoundment would be located about 2.6 miles southeast of Hillsboro, population 6,200.

The permit application that would allow the impoundment change hasn’t been approved by IDNR at this time, but on Aug. 16 at an informal hearing on the matter local residents pointed to aerial photographs and told IDNR officials that dam construction had already begun, an allegation IDNR officials at the time said was not true, according to the Hillsboro Journal News.

Arlis Bates, a member of Citizens Against Longwall Mining, says the construction of the mine is the primary factor in her decision to move out of Hillsboro to the family farm. She calls the impoundment change a “bait and switch” and complains that IDNR hasn’t held a formal public hearing for the proposed impoundment, a concern addressed by the Illinois attorney general’s office in an Aug. 22 letter to IDNR’s senior dam safety engineer Paul Mauer.

In the letter, Thomas Davis, environmental bureau chief for the Illinois attorney general’s office, states that IDNR on March 24, 2010, “made available” a public notice regarding the proposed construction of a coal waste facility at the Deer Run Mine but never distributed the notice to the media for publication or to the mine’s neighbors. Noting that he’d received complaints from concerned citizens, Davis wrote that a permit could be void if IDNR approves the application without first holding a public hearing.

“What we are most disgusted about is the piecemeal way in which the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Office of Mines and Minerals lets these coal mines change their permits without full disclosure to the public until almost after the fact,” says Joyce Blumenshine, conservation committee chair with the Illinois Sierra Club, which opposes coal energy. “If you know you’re going to build an 80-foot high hazard dam, then why wasn’t this done as a complete package? Why wasn’t IDNR posting the significant revision before all these other steps were approved? It seems really out of sequence. It seems really suspicious that the entire base could be done and then IDNR reveals to the public that this is going to be an 80-foot high hazard dam.”

Mike Plunkett, Montgomery County board chairman and editor at the Hillsboro Journal News, says he’s in favor of the Deer Run project and coal energy in general, but he says public participation is vital.

“They said that they sent notices to all interested parties in March 2010. I don’t remember getting one as county board chairman and I have yet to find anyone who got one who was a neighbor,” Plunkett says. “I work at a newspaper, and there was no public notice in the newspaper. … If it’s not a legal requirement that the dam require a paid public notice, it certainly should be.”

Contact Rachel Wells at rwells@illinoistimes.com.


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