Updated: Homer board considers separate water requests, but no votes yet
UPDATED 11:14 p.m. Monday.
HOMER – Tinya Konradt lives in rural Fithian on a family farm about three miles from Homer and her well ran dry this summer in the drought. She said that’s never happened before and that’s why she has concerns about 350,000 gallons of water a day being pumped out of the ground in the Homer area and piped to a proposed coal mine in Vermilion County.
Konradt was one of more than 50 people who attended a special Homer village board meeting Monday night to discuss Sunrise Coal’s request for hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw water and up to 4,000 gallons of treated water and sewer services for its proposed mine just over the county border in Vermilion.
During public comments, Konradt asked why only village trustees get to make a decision on whether to supply water to the coal mine without a vote by the people. Another resident asked during public comments if the issue could be put to a referendum.
Homer village trustees mostly focused Monday night on the lesser treated water request, hashing out several issues in the proposed contract for up to 4,000 gallons of potable water a day and sewer services. They didn’t officially discuss the request for 350,000 gallons of raw water.
Mayor David Lucas said the raw water request will likely be tabled until January. And at the village’s next meeting Dec. 10, the trustees will consider the proposed contract for treated water and sewer services only. That gives the attorneys two weeks to draw up a proposed contract that incorporates the issues discussed Monday night concerning treated water and sewer services, including who would own the water and sewer lines between Homer and the mine.
But the raw water request did come up briefly Monday night when one of the village trustees asked a special attorney hired by the village whether the village would be legally liable if private wells were affected by a large withdrawal of water.
That question, among others, has been raised by local attorney Chad Beckett, who’s representing several Homer area residents and the Prairie Rivers Network.
The village’s special municipal utility attorney, James Rhodes, with Klein, Thorpe and Jenkins, said state law requires the village to go through extensive review by a number of government agencies before it can draw out a large amount of water.
“That issue gets vetted with great detail, and you have a number of sign-offs,” he said, referring to various agencies requiring their approval before a large extraction of water can begin.
Homer Mayor David Lucas said the village went through that extensive process when it drilled the village’s northern wells several years ago. The village’s original wells are west of town, and to increase its capacity, the village drilled additional wells north of Homer near Ogden.
Lucas said it was a very extensive process, and the village had to prove the wells wouldn’t affect other wells in the area and had to designate the village’s expected usage from those wells.
“If the aquifer won’t support it, they won’t allow you to drill it. So there are a number of safeguards already set up to protect people’s water source,” Lucas said.
The biggest issues trustees wrestled with concerning the contract for treated water were whether the village or the coal mine would own the water and sewer lines, whether the coal mine’s proposed 50-year contract was too long and whether the contract should allow another user, for instance, if the mine were sold to another company.
Sunrise would build the water and sewer lines from its surface mine site to the village limits about six miles away, and the coal mine could continue to own and maintain those lines or turn them over to the village, according to Rhodes. Some trustees support village ownership, because it could allow other rural residents in the area to tap into the water line. Andrew Kieser, an engineer with Sodemann and Associates who works with the village on its water and sewer issues, said if the village took ownership, the maintenance of the lines would be minimal.
But village Attorney Paul Hendren said the trustees had originally discussed not owning the lines, because it could obligate the village to various things in the future. Trustees decided to make a final decision on that issue at the next meeting.
On the second major issue, Rhodes advised trustees that a 50-year contract as suggested by Sunrise is too long. But the Sunrise attorney said the company needs to know it will have a reliable, consistent source of treated water and sewer services for many years for planning purposes, especially considering the major financial investment the company will be making. Trustees discussed making it 40 years, or a contract that is renewable in smaller increments like every 10 years.
Scott Gaubill, a mine engineer with Sunrise, told the village trustees that the life of the mine is projected at 30 years, so the company needs a very long commitment for treated water and sewer services; otherwise, it wouldn’t have a comfort level to make the major investment in infrastructure.
The Sunrise attorney said prohibiting any other user would also be a major issue for Sunrise, especially in securing financing for the project. The attorney said any other user besides Sunrise would also have to abide by the same agreement as Sunrise. But some trustees still voiced support for limiting it to Sunrise as the only user, so the village could control what kind of operation is at that site.