Residents Take Stand Against World’s Largest Coal Company in Southern Illinois
On March 13, a handful of local residents blocked a road through the forest in southern Illinois and attempted to prevent a contractor for Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company, from bringing in logging equipment to clear the area for a new 1,000-acre mine.
The Rocky Branch strip mine would basically be an extension of Peabody’s existing Cottage Grove mine, which produces about 2 million tons of coal annually and supplies Tennessee Valley Authority power plants in Ohio.
Logging had already started before the residents blocked the road; and continued during and since the blockade, which lasted for about four hours. Nonetheless, residents said they prevented some equipment from being moved and made a strong statement against the mine.
Residents opposed to the mine are demanding Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan intervene and review the permit process surrounding Rocky Branch, and order Peabody to halt its logging operations in the meantime.
The case may also represent a broader shift in attitude in a part of Illinois that has long acquiesced to the coal industry.
Dispute Over Permits
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) issued a mining and reclamation permit under the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act on March 11, and a third party contractor hired by Peabody started logging shortly after. But Peabody still has not obtained a required water discharge permit under the federal Clean Water Act, administered by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Public comment for that permit closed March 19.
Opponents say the IDNR should not have given Peabody a green light while the water discharge permit was still pending; and they think the IDNR did not adequately consider environmental and other risks posed by the mine.
On March 19, a group of residents visited the Attorney General’s Carbondale office to voice their demand and deliver a petition hosted by the activist mobile phone company CREDO, with more than 5,000 signatures.
“If the nominal regulatory agency—in this case the IDNR—abdicates its responsibility, then it is the Attorney General’s responsibility to step in and make sure that the law is obeyed,” said Sam Stearns, a resident of surrounding Saline County.
IDNR spokesman Chris Young said the EPA approval is not required in order for the IDNR to grant a permit, and he said the department “maintains an open line of communication with the Illinois Attorney General’s office on many issues.” He said the department had no further comments on the residents’ road block or complaints.
Natalie Bauer, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office, said staff met with residents in Carbondale “and collected the materials they provided. We’ll review them as a part of our larger review that is underway.”
Peabody spokesperson Charlene Murdock said the Rocky Branch mine would create 200 jobs, and that, “Peabody Energy has an outstanding reputation for environmental responsibility and we comply with all applicable requirements of state and federal permits.”
Murdock says the March 11 IDNR permit cleared the way for logging to begin, and, “There are no plans to begin mining prior to applicable permits being in place.”
She said the contractor told Peabody the road blockade caused “some delays offloading equipment at the site but no significant delays were experienced.” She said residents had their chance to express opinions at three public hearings on the IDNR permit, and that “Peabody Energy operates in a transparent manner. Our environmental compliance record speaks for itself and we often host regulatory agencies for tours at our mine sites.”
Regarding the call for Madigan to review the permit, she said, “Regulatory certainty is an important component of business planning and the State of Illinois has a long-standing process for granting mine permits which has served the state and industry well.”
‘We Join With You in Your Actions’
Attorney General Madigan and Gov. Quinn (D-IL) previously intervened to stop strip-mining in the nearby town of Banner, in part because of the possible impacts on bald eagles and white pelicans. In 2005 Quinn—who was lieutenant governor at the time—launched a petition drive and a “grassroots effort” to stop the mine. Madigan filed a complaint against that mine in 2009, after the IDNR had granted a permit. Saline County residents are asking Madigan to make a similar move regarding Rocky Branch.
Ken Fuller, village president of Banner, released a statement supporting the opposition to Rocky Branch.
“We join with you in your actions to stand up for your community. We know from past experience that it can be done successfully,” Fuller wrote, also advising the residents to try to delay the EPA water permit as long as possible. “The bottom line is, this is your community and you have every right to fight for it.”
The residents want to block the mine as a whole, and they also want to force Peabody to stop logging immediately. Young said the company is rushing to finish clearing the land to avoid a seasonal logging moratorium, beginning March 31 and running through October, to protect female or young endangered Indiana bats.
A Turning Point?
Southern Illinois was built on coal, and the region has seen a history of bloody clashes between miners and company officials and between competing miner factions over labor conditions and other issues. But while coal mining and coal power has sparked fierce resistance in other parts of the country, there’s historically been mostly support for the concept of mining coal in this neck of the woods.
Hence, residents say, the opposition to the Rocky Branch mine is historic.
“This is the first time in my life that I can remember a community in Southern Illinois standing up to Peabody over their destructive policies,” said Stearns. “I think Peabody is surprised at the resistance. I do not think they are concerned, however: they are used to literally and figuratively bulldozing our communities with impunity.”
That sense of impunity, as critics see it, was represented by Peabody’s decision to start logging the site in January before they had the IDNR permit. For that the IDNR cited subsidiary Peabody Arclar Mining LLC for violations involving surface mining without a permit. The violation notices stemmed in part from a recent federal policy change wherein logging a mine site now qualifies as pre-surface mining activity subject to permit requirements.
In issuing the permit on March 11, the IDNR mentioned the company’s violations, but said Peabody was taking steps to remedy them.
Meanwhile, neighbors are concerned the Rocky Branch mine would contaminate groundwater and do irreparable damage to the land, including lush woods not far from the Shawnee National Forest. The IDNR permit notes that about half the land is cropland, with several hundred acres made up of forest and pastureland. About two-thirds of the 1,000 acres would be strip-mined, while the remaining acres would host support infrastructure.
At a December public hearing on the IDNR permit, residents voiced much fear and anger over the proposal, saying it would be too much ecological change, especially on top of the Cottage Grove mine.
“We already have thousands of acres of once-productive farm land and formerly-healthy streams and forests which have been sacrificed forever to strip mining,” said Stearns, who is from a coal mining family and grew up believing coal was “the salvation of our region.”
“If the Rocky Branch area is strip mined, it will make the area unbearable for the current inhabitants; and it will ruin even more land forever,” he added. “The few jobs this proposed mine would create would last for just a few years, maybe a decade at most. There is no way those few short-term jobs are worth the damage it would do to the people and the land of Rocky Branch. My parents’ and grandparents’ generations did not realize the harm that coal causes. But today we can no longer plead ignorance.”
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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