HOMER — Sunrise Coal LLC has agreed to cover the village of Homer's expenses in hiring a special attorney and engineer to determine whether it's legal for the Champaign County municipality to sell water to the coal company.
In front of an audience of more than 100 people that spilled out into the entryway of the village hall, the Homer Village Board and Sunrise Coal officials agreed Wednesday night that Sunrise will deposit $50,000 in an account that the village can draw on to pay for an attorney to do the legal research to determine whether it can sell water to Sunrise. The account would also cover the cost of an engineer that would serve as a technical adviser to the attorney.
The village board voted 4-2 to authorize the mayor and village attorney to seek an engineer and special legal counsel who can do the legal research. The mayor and village attorney will have the Sunrise account at its disposal to pay those costs, and Sunrise officials asked that it be notified prior to withdrawals being made.
Sunrise Coal, based in Terre Haute, Ind., has asked Homer to supply water to its proposed Bulldog coal mine, an underground mine across the border in Vermilion County. Homer is considering the request for hundreds of thousands of gallons of raw water in addition to potable water and sewer services, which Sunrise would pay the village to provide on an annual basis.
The village's attorney, Paul Hendren, advised the board Wednesday night that this type of request requires an attorney who specializes in agreements between municipalities and utilities. He said there are strong legal opinions on both sides of the issue. He also advised board members that they should seek reimbursement of the costs of the special attorney and engineer so the village doesn't incur costs before it even determines whether it will sell water to the coal company.
Sunrise's attorney, Lee Alan, told board members that the coal company understands the village does not have the financial resources to pay to research legal issues, so Sunrise is more than willing to pay all the village's costs up front.
Alan said he has done the legal research and thinks the village does have the legal authority to sell the water to Sunrise. He suggested creating an account to pay the costs up front in the interest of moving this process forward quickly.
"We think long-term this would be beneficial to the village," said Alan, who also told the board that it's not the company's intent to deplete wells or the village's water supply, and if studies show that it's not possible to fill the request, the company will move on to its secondary plan for providing the mine with raw water. He said the request for raw water is separate from the request that Homer also provide a much smaller amount of potable water and sewer services.
Alan said the company would like the entire study process wrapped up and agreements with the village in place by the end of this year.
Several members of the public made comments to the village board, most in opposition of the mine, including Howard Hackney of Homer. who presented the board with a petition with 500 signatures opposing the mine.
Chad Beckett, an attorney representing Prairie Rivers Network and some local residents, disagreed with Sunrise's attorney and told the village board that there are legal questions about whether the village can sell Sunrise water. He told the board that it should reject the request — a recommendation that drew cheers from the majority of the audience.
The board did not discuss the actual sale of water to Sunrise at Wednesday night's meeting, because it first wants to get the legal questions answered. Mayor David Lucas told the board that a seven-day study by the Illinois State Water Survey of the village's northern well near Ogden was inconclusive about the capacity of the aquifer from which that well draws, and more study is necessary to determine that answer.