Coal mine with no answers

Coal mine with no answers

By Tyler Rotche

In December 2010, Sunrise Coal told investors "we will start the permitting process this spring and anticipate receiving a mining permit in early 2013."

As years passed, the Indiana-based company continued urging cautious farmers and landowners to lease their mineral rights for a coal mine no one really knew much about. The company pushed to acquire necessary water resources throughout Vermilion County (narrowly side-stepping the requirements of the Open Meetings Act).

Eventually, Sunrise Coal flipped on the portrayal of the mine — ceasing to call it a "closed-loop," no-discharge mine and finally applying for a pollution-discharge permit through the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Today, years after Sunrise promised shareholders it would be ready to go, basic questions still linger about operations of the proposed Bulldog coal mine, and two permits are still unearned.

The first permit required is from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for mining and land restoration. At two public hearings last winter, hundreds of residents gathered to voice their concerns.

After considering the comments and documents submitted, IDNR realized the insufficiencies in the permit, compiling a list of 62 mistakes, sloppy responses and questions for Sunrise to answer by March 20.

When their homework was due, however, Sunrise Coal appealed to the department for another extension.

On the one hand, this additional review might provide time to fix the glaring errors in the permit (while it will use more taxpayer-funded time of IDNR, working on behalf of an Indiana company — a tremendous subsidy during our budget crisis).

On the other hand, it is extremely concerning that a company asking East Central Illinois to trust them — trust them to effectively operate a massive mine and waste-disposal site, trust them to protect farmland and groundwater, trust them to protect endangered species and a community water supply — can't manage to finish basic-level paperwork.

So what remains for Sunrise Coal to answer? Two primary questions are under consideration.

First, Sunrise appears to be undertaking design changes for the site's slurry impoundment. The slurry impoundment is a 75-foot-tall pit built from broken rock and loose soil. The pit is intended to hold 3.9 million cubic yards of waste — enough to fill New York's Empire State Building almost three times.

Throughout the public hearings, it was noted that Sunrise's equivalent pit at its Carlisle, Ind., facility is already showing signs of failure, with visibly slumping walls. The ongoing operation of a poorly designed pit places groundwater at risk, but the potential failure of the impoundment could inundate surrounding farmland and waterways with toxic waste.

Second, the regulatory agencies are evaluating Sunrise's proposal to discharge water into agricultural drainage tile — subsurface systems built to remove excess water from soil.

This operation plan presents a risk to surrounding farmers and landowners. Potentially overusing the tile could result in immediate damage; the system could back up waters for up-gradient landowners or overflow wastewater onto the property of down-gradient landowners.

An internal memo from the Illinois EPA's Hydrogeologic and Compliance Unit also notes that the proposal could result in the near-immediate pollution of groundwater, stating:

"By design, these concrete pipes are jointed and not well sealed in order to allow infiltration of groundwater from the adja- cent soils."

With pressure from mine wastewater, this system would work in reverse. The memo notes that "a significant potential exists for storm water mixed with mine process wastewater to migrate from the field-tile drainage system into the adjacent soils and impact groundwater."

As Sunrise Coal asks for more time and more Illinois resources in the midst of an already-stretched state budget, the company might rewrite substantial portions of the permit. Yet there are no provisions within state regulations to provide additional public participation at this point in the application review process.

Nevertheless, there are questions worth asking. Can Sunrise be trusted to protect Illinois' land and water resources? Is this a company we can trust to maintain prime farmland that drives and sustains the local economy?

What promises have they broken with investors and what promises can they keep for us?

Tyler Rotche is a water policy specialist with the Prairie Rivers Network in Champaign. He can be reached at or standup