In remarks to a recent meeting of the Homer Village Board, attorney Steve Beckett suggested that the effort to stop development of a coal mine in Vermilion County had created an unusual alliance between environmentalists and farmers in the area.
I've long known people there who could easily be described by both of those titles, and I wondered if Beckett was really just referring to them.
So I called Brian Perbix at Prairie Rivers Network to ask. He assured me that local farmers who might not be comfortable with the label "environmentalist" are indeed at the heart of opposition to the proposed mine, and he suggested I check in with Keith and Brenda Rohl to see for myself.
The Rohls agreed to meet with me at their farm, a conventional corn-growing operation located 5 miles south of the village. They were not thrilled about being the subjects of a newspaper column, but they were willing to talk because they believe strongly that a coal mine would do irreparable harm to the area.
Both started out by emphasizing how much they value their friendships and ties to the community and how fervently they wish to prevent damage to those relationships.
"Whatever the outcome of this," Keith said, "I want people to know I am still their friend and neighbor. I am fighting the coal mine." To that, Brenda added, "Our intent is to protect the land and preserve the community."
When they were approached about selling the rights to the coal under their land, the Rohls were initially inclined to go along.
"Seeing the numbers," Keith said, "it seemed like it might not be such a bad deal." But there were questions they wanted answered first.
They wondered about subsidence, whether the land they farm might sink in places once coal from the seam beneath it was removed. The method of mining proposed at the site, called room and pillar, is intended to minimize subsidence. But in their research into the impacts of such mining elsewhere in the state, the Rohls learned there were no guarantees.
Keith pointed out that if parts of a field do sink, a farmer may wind up spending the money he gained by selling mineral rights trying to fix the resulting drainage problems and wind up worse off than he was before.
In the course of their research, the Rohls also developed concerns about how the proposed mine might affect the local community's water resources, which others have voiced as well.
Those concerns include whether the large amounts of water required for the proposed mine could be supplied to it without impacting other users and whether the polluted water created by mining processes can be safely contained on the site. Nobody wants to see the nearby Salt Fork River contaminated with pollutants from a mine.
In addition to their concerns over what might go wrong with a coal mine in their community, the Rohls came to recognize that a mine could do a great deal of damage, even if everything went right.
That damage would begin with the footprint of mining operations on the surface of the ground.
"We're a farming community, and we're looking at 400 acres or more of land being taken out of production forever," Brenda pointed out.
Beyond that, she said, it's not something you would want to live next to, with piles of mine waste that could be 80 or 90 feet tall. That's especially unfortunate for the neighbor whose home and 5-acre property is bounded on two sides by the land intended for surface operations.
The Rohls also voiced concern over how coal would be moved from the site of the surface operation to the main rail line some distance away.
They are unwilling to have a branch line built across their property, and they suspect mine operators might intend to truck all of the coal over existing roads, creating a constant flow of traffic unlike anything the community is used to or would ever want.
The remark that probably best summed up the attitude of the Rohls toward the proposed mine was one they attributed to Sue Smith, who is part of another local farm family who opposes it: "We already have a thriving industry here," they agreed, "that's farming. The last thing we want to do is jeopardize it."
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays. This article appeared in print on Feb. 3, 2013.