Southern Illinois Says No to Peabody Coal at Historic Hearing
Outnumbering Peabody Energy supporters more than four to one among those willing to make public comments, outraged residents, farmers and former miners expertly broke down the inconsistencies and errors in the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's (IEPA) tentative determination to issue a water quality permit at a packed strip mine hearing on Tuesday in the heart of Illinois' coal country.
It was a historic evening in Harrisburg, Illinois—only a few miles from where Peabody Coal sank its first coal mine in 1895—and for first time in decades, southern Illinois residents brought the spotlight to issues of civil rights and the state's spiraling crisis from a poorly regulated coal mining rush.
After tolerating the reckless fallout of nearby blasting, toxic coal dust and threatened waterways of the adjoining Cottage Grove strip mine—which has left only a cemetery in the ruins of a once thriving rural community—residents and their supporters drew the line in the sand for Peabody's request to expand its strip mine and effectively wipe out the close-knit farm community of Rocky Branch.
"They are ringing the bell for the death of Rocky Branch," said Rita Karns, whose family has farmed and lived in the famed Shawnee Forest area for generations, "and we've got to stop it."
"We the people of Rocky Branch," declared resident Jennifer Dumberis, "we will decide what happens to us and our civil rights--not Peabody."
Among the long line of residents speaking out against the strip mine expansion, compared to a handful of Peabody employees, Karns held up a jar of discolored tap water already affected by mine discharges, which would effectively expand into area drinking water sources and tributaries leading to the Saline River under the present permit plan.
Ranging more than 1,000 acres, the mine would destroy more than 35,000 feet of natural streams, and discharge waste into area waterways.
But on the heels of a disappointing Department of Natural Resources (DNR) hearing in December, where residents say Illinois agency officials refused to accept documentation and photographs of blasting and pollution violations, Tuesday's hearing revealed unanswered questions and troubling errors in the EPA permitting process, including incorrectly labeled streams. Only one of the the five-member IEPA panel admitted to having visited the nearby strip mine location.
And IEPA official Dean Studer repeated an earlier comment on the record that his agency had never rejected such a permit for a coal company in recent memory.
Last month, due to the Department of Natural Resources inaction, federal official were called in to make sure state officials halted illegal logging by Peabody in the proposed mining area.
At the Illinois DNR hearing in December, residents also questioned whether Peabody had already built a haulage road exit onto Rocky Branch, without proper Illinois Department of Transportation permits.
"These hearings seem to be a farce," said Judy Keller, who sits on the Cottage Grove town council. "When there are this many questions, without any answers, it makes you wonder what's going on behind closed doors. We call on Governor Quinn and Attorney General Madigan to come to Saline County for themselves, to see the price we are paying for this mine."
Given the mounting administrative inconsistencies, residents now wonder if the time has come for Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and her investigators to intervene in the Saline County strip mine, just as she did three years ago for the failed Banner strip mine proposal in Fulton County.
“The facts indicate that a strip mine at this location will be harmful to the local environment and the people that live nearby,” Madigan said in a statement in 2009 on the Banner mine proposal. “I am asking the court to hear the many voices from the Banner area who have expressed their concern and to reevaluate the facts regarding this permit.”
Will Madigan bring a similar justice to Rocky Branch?
Besieged residents reminded Peabody officials that their "good neighbor" policy was lacking, and challenged the company's claims of reclamation yields on their land, water quality plans, as well as the mine's economic impact. A study released last year actually found that the state's antiquated tax policies, subsidies and maintenance racked up a $20 million annual deficit to support the coal industry.
Peabody, in fact, laid off 400 coal miners at the nearby Willow Lake mine in the fall of 2012, after the death of a coal miner and an MSHA ruling on safety problems. Last year, retired coal miners descended on Peabody headquarters in St. Louis to protest the loss of health benefits from a bankruptcy scheme.
That same sense of outrage dominated the hearing in Harrisburg on Tuesday.
Rocky Branch resident Rhonda Dillard distributed photos of 2011 flooding in the area designated for mining, and questioned feasible emergency road arrangements.
"The IEPA no longer has the luxury of pleading ignorance," third-generation miner and Shawnee Forest resident Sam Stearns said.
Recalling past damages by strip mining, Steve Karns challenged the discharge allowances, and asked—without any answer—if the state or Peabody had prepared any emergency contingency in "case of acts similar to what happened in West Virginia."
In an area historically rich in indigenous artifacts, dating back to nearby prehistoric mounds and settlements, Shawnee Vinyard Indian Settlement spokesperson Barney Bush questioned why the state was allowing mining in probable Native village sites. It was unclear if Peabody had properly carried out an archaeological survey,
"Before we totally destroy the whole thing," said Rocky Branch farmer Allan Porter, calling on the state and federal officials to recognizing the community's civil rights, "if we don't consider the human side of this, we're going to miss the whole thing. The greatest environment we need to protect is human life. Let's consider there's more to it than water down a stream."
Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.
Typhoon Molave is expected to make landfall in Vietnam on Wednesday with 90 mph winds and heavy rainfall that could lead to flooding and landslides, according to the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare for the powerful storm that already tore through the Philippines, Vietnam is making plans to evacuate nearly 1.3 million people along the central coast, as Reuters reported.
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A stretch of coastline in the Philippine capital, Manila has received backlash from environmentalists. The heavily polluted Manila Bay area, which had been slated for cleanup, has become the site of a controversial 500-meter (1,600-foot) stretch of white sand beach.
Sand Makeup Crucial for Ecosystems<p>While UNEP/GRID-Geneva generally supports finding <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/not-enough-sand-for-construction-industry-despite-abundance/a-49342942" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">alternative sources of sand</a> so as not to disrupt ecosystems in rivers and oceans when extracting them, Vander Velpen stressed it was vital to use sand which closely matches the makeup of the native sand to protect beach fauna.</p><p>"If you change the core characteristics of the native sand, the original sand, you need to do an environmental impact assessment (EIA) to find out how it's going to impact the ecosystem and nearby ecosystems," he told DW.</p><p>But according to Torres, such an assessment was not done in Manila.</p>
Beautification Stunt Instead of Proper Cleanup?<p>Manila Bay's waters are heavily polluted by oil and trash from nearby residential areas and ports. A huge "No swimming" sign warns visitors to stay away from the ocean.</p><p>Philippines' <a href="https://denr.gov.ph/index.php/priority-programs/manila-bay-clean-up/25-priority-programs/1825-frequently-ask-questions-faqs-on-the-dolomite-and-the-beach-nourishment-project" target="_blank">Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR)</a> has denied dolomite sand poses any risk to human health and the ecosystem.</p><p>However, scientists of the University of the Philippines have come forward disputing the DENR's claims. A <a href="https://biology.science.upd.edu.ph/index.php/ib-statement-regarding-dolomite-in-manila-bay/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">statement by the Institute of Biology</a> said that using crushed dolomite did not address any of the rehabilitation phases and instead was "even more detrimental to the existing biodiversity as well as the communities in the area," pointing to the case of water birds. "The dumping of dolomite in Manila Bay has effectively covered part of the intertidal area used by the birds thereby reducing their habitat."</p><p>At peak migration season, Manila Bay is home to 90 aquatic bird species, including species of international conservation concern that are facing a very high extinction risk in the wild. </p><p>Authorities should focus on protecting and conserving biodiversity, the Institute of Biology added. "Rehabilitating mangroves is an example of a nature-based solution that is cheaper and more cost-effective than the dolomite dumping project," the scientists said.</p><p>Moreover, <a href="http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the Marine Science Institute</a> has warned that prolonged inhalation of finer dust particles of dolomite could "cause chronic health effects," leading to discomfort in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing.</p><p>They also warned dolomite sand grains would erode during storms and be carried out to sea, essentially being washed away.</p>
Rehabilitation vs. Reclamation<p>Environmentalists say covering up the beach doesn't address the real issues of the bay. Torres and others believe the best way to clean up Manila Bay is not to add anything, but rather remove trash and pollution.</p><p>"There have been studies saying much of the waste comes from already collected waste — so these are open dump sites along the coast that get washed up because of the rain," Torres said.</p><p>She criticized the authorities for continuing to push reclamation projects she says are at odds with each other. These projects will affect large areas of mangrove forests, she said, and experts warn that this, in turn, exacerbates coastal erosion.</p><p>"If you've removed the areas that helped trap the sand, like mangrove forests, then the likelihood increases that you will have to nourish a beach. Same as building right up to the waterfront," said Vander Velpen of UNEP/GRID-Geneva.</p>
Plenty of Sand in the Sea?<p>The question of Manila's contentious white beach echoes larger questions about sand mining worldwide. <a href="https://unepgrid.ch/storage/app/media/documents/Sand_and_sustainability_UNEP_2019.pdf" target="_blank">Global sand consumption has tripled</a> over the past two decades, UNEP/GRID-Geneva has found. A huge chunk of it is now taken up by construction.</p><p>"Many operate on the assumption that natural sand is endless in its supply," said Vander Velpen.</p><p>Sand scarcity is a concern shared by Stefan Schimmels of <a href="https://www.fzk.uni-hannover.de/fzk_start.html?&L=1" target="_blank">Forschungszentrum Küste</a> who's done extensive research on shore nourishment to stop coastal erosion. And as climate change and rising sea levels are threatening coasts, demand for sand will grow even more.</p><p>A large study, the <a href="http://www.stencil-project.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/STENCIL_SWOT_Analyse_191026.pdf" target="_blank">Strategies and Tools for Environment-Friendly Shore Nourishments as Climate Change Impact Low-Regret Measures (STENCIL project)</a>, focused on the German island of Sylt, a popular vacation spot.</p><p>About 1 million cubic meter of sand per year is used to maintain the coastal area of Sylt, STENCIL project head Schimmels said. That's about 100 million 10-liter buckets of sand.</p><p>When sand was extracted off the coast of Sylt, underwater craters were formed. "You can still detect these craters even decades later," Schimmels told DW.</p><p>"Also when you add a couple of meters sand onto the beach — you essentially bury all things that do creep and fly," he said. "How quickly will they recover?" Schimmels said more research was needed as there was still too little known about long-term effects on the environment. </p>
Criticism Piling Up<p>As for Manila's artificial white sand, it looks like some might have already been blown away by a recent storm. DENR claims it wasn't washed away, but said that grayish sand, stones and other material had simply piled up over the dolomite sand. People in Manila have tweeted photos showing how the storm has ravaged the beach. </p>
<div id="adc0b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="98f9390db6bb81cb421aaf0bb9d9a6fb"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318816633280851969" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Exactly one month after giving excited netizen a glimpse of Manila Bay white sands, look what happened now after ju… https://t.co/X0Z9i0bPB0</div> — M*A*S*H (@M*A*S*H)<a href="https://twitter.com/Magtira_Matibay/statuses/1318816633280851969">1603265362.0</a></blockquote></div><p>Authorities have been called tone-deaf for spending around 389 million pesos ($8 million) on a beach nourishment project in the middle of a raging pandemic.</p><p>An image of cake iced with the words "It really hurts - that's [worth] 389 million pesos?" has since gone viral.</p>
<div class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4387aad52ea316e4db7330052318ca2f"><div class="fb-post" data-href="https://www.facebook.com/theweekendpatisserie/posts/144564207350008"></div></div><p>"It's just a waste of precious resources," Torres said. </p><p>The environmental activist now also worries that she might be labeled a terrorist for speaking out under the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/philippine-anti-terrorism-law-triggers-fear-of-massive-rights-abuses/a-53732140" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Philippines' controversial new anti-terrorism law</a>. She says she could be arrested for inciting fear when talking about environmental dangers.</p>
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