MURDOCK — In the late 1980s, Zala Swigart worked at the Murdock coal mine, weighing the trucks hauling coal out of the underground operation that's less than a mile from where she lives.
Now, Swigart, 67, watches trucks hauling material into the former Douglas County mine even though it's more than 20 years since it operated as a coal mine.
Swigart said she loved working there, but in the last few years, the site has become a source of frustration for her, her husband, Eric Swigart, and other neighbors who have had to deal with dust from the site as well as strong odors and concerns that their well water is not safe.
"I would not drink it or cook with it," said Swigart, who only uses the water for washing dishes and clothes or showering.
Neighbors Mike and Jeri Luth live about a quarter-mile southwest of the mine and haven't been drinking their well water for about two years, said Jeri Luth, because they "don't know what's in it." Luth said they haven't had their well water tested, because the drought has forced them to haul water into their well all year.
In October, the Illinois attorney general's office filed a complaint with the Illinois Pollution Control Board, alleging that the owner of the mine site, Alpena Vision Resources, which took over in 2004, has polluted the air and a stream near the former mining site due to improper disposal of a variety of waste that was being hauled into the site from various places in Illinois, including Champaign-Urbana, Decatur and Danville. That case is still pending before the Pollution Control Board, according to the attorney general's office, with a status update on Jan. 14.
Alpena officials did not return phone calls from The News-Gazette.
Luth said it's one thing to live next to a mine and know what to expect.
"But this stuff, you feel like you don't have any control over it, and there's no preparing for that," she said.
Swigart said this is "not at all" what she expected of the mine reclamation process.
"I sure did not think they would be bringing over human waste," she said.
The attorney general's complaint revealed that Alpena had permits to haul in various substances from various sources, including sewage sludge from the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District. That was halted in April due to odor problems, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and odors have not been an issue since, according to the Swigarts, Luths and state officials.
Prior to the attorney general's office filing the complaint, the IEPA and state Rep. Chapin Rose had been involved with Murdock residents who had been complaining of dust and strong odors, and the Prairie Rivers Network has been involved as well, working to document alleged pollution and foul conditions at the site.
Alpena has been slow to conduct the required reclamation activities, and air and water pollution have resulted at a site that's being used more as a landfill but without the pollution controls of a legally-operated landfill, according to Traci Barkley with Prairie Rivers Network.
Federal and state laws require coal mines to be reclaimed, or returned to their natural state, which generally includes preventing subsidence, or sinking of surface land over mined areas, sealing all mine openings and exploratory holes, disposing of wastes and assuring that any leaching will not contaminate surface or ground water, and establishing a permanent vegetative cover capable of self-generating.
But reclamation has been slow at Murdock, and complicated by ownership issues.
It was Old Ben Coal Company up until the early 1990s, when Zeigler Coal Company acquired the mine, but maintained the "Old Ben" name, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Underground portions of the mine were active until 1991, when the site went into temporary cessation, which is a voluntary action taken by a company to temporarily cease production and preserve the right to resume mining later, according to IDNR.
In 1994, carbon recovery of coal fines from the surface of the mine was started and has occurred periodically since then, IDNR officials said.
Coal fines, in this case, according to Chris McCloud, spokesperson for IDNR, are recovered from coal processing reject material from the old underground Murdock Mine. Coal cleaning processes in the past, said IDNR officials, were not as efficient as today and there are opportunities to reprocess the old waste to recover marketable fine coal. But IDNR officials said they do not know where the coal fines from Murdock would be marketed.
In the late 1990s, Zeigler was bought by another mining operation, AEI Resources Inc., which later filed for bankruptcy. On Oct. 5, 2004, the permit for the Murdock Mine was transferred to Alpena, according to IDNR.
When a coal mine goes out of business, IDNR officials said there are three options to continue the reclamation process.
One is to find a willing buyer to take over the operation and reclamation liability, which is what was done at the Murdock site when the permit was transferred to Alpena. Or, the company can do the reclamation under the bankruptcy court's direction, or forfeit the bond. Under that option, the bonding company may choose to do the work or send the bond to the regulatory authority, which will contract out the work.
A bond must be posted as part of the coal mine permit process, and the amount is site-specific based on IDNR's calculation of the cost to reclaim the site. It's released in phases as reclamation progresses.
The current permit for the Murdock mine was issued in 1983, according to IDNR, and a $2 million bond was posted at that time. In 1993, it was increased to about $2.3 million, and some of that was released in 2001, 2003, and 2005 as reclamation progressed. About $930,000 of the bond remains, according to IDNR.
IDNR officials said the filling of the Murdock mine shafts began in about 1996 along with the demolition of the buildings. Since then, the coarse refuse pile has been covered.
But reclamation can occur over a period of many years, according to IDNR, particularly if carbon recovery of the surface deposits is part of the operation, which it has been at Murdock. But, areas of the mine not part of the carbon recovery operations are in the process of being reclaimed, according to IDNR. And the biosolids and sludge that were being hauled in to Murdock were supposed to be part of that process.
In 2006, the IEPA permitted the delivery of various materials to the Murdock mine to treat potential acidic refuse at Murdock, according to IEPA officials.
Acid mine drainage is highly acidic water rich in heavy metals, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's website, and forms through the chemical reaction of surface water — rainwater, snowmelt, pond water — or shallow subsurface water with rocks that contain sulfur-bearing minerals, resulting in sulfuric acid. And heavy metals can be leached from rocks that come in contact with the acid, resulting in fluids that may be highly toxic and, mixed with groundwater, surface water and soil, may have harmful effects on humans, animals and plants, according to the EPA website.
The materials the IEPA approved to treat acidic refuse were:
— Biosolids: The Urbana Champaign Sanitary District delivered de-watered biosolids — sewage sludge from wastewater treatment plants — for use in the construction of the final cover over the impoundment. At the request of the IEPA, biosolid delivery stopped in April 2012.
— Gypsum and coal-combustion by-product, or CCB: Archer Daniels Midland in Decatur delivers a gypsum by-product (from a lactic-acid manufacturing process) and CCB or ash (from the burning of coal in ADM's boilers) to the Murdock site.
— Lime sludge: In 2007, some lime sludge, a by-product of the drinking water treatment process, was accepted for a short time from the Danville water treatment plant for use as a soil cover.
According to the IEPA, these man-made by-products being used for mine reclamation are not considered hazardous materials. Each "has been widely studied," according to IEPA's release, and found to contain varying low levels of inorganic/organic compounds, nutrients and/or metals, and there's no indication these materials would be "harmful to the health of residents living near the site."
David Cronk with Aqua Illinois said the lime sludge delivered in 2007 from the company's Danville water treatment plant is a by-product of using lime to soften the water. The lime sludge that's left over is transferred to lagoons but can't sit there forever or it would overflow, he said. Cronk said farmers put it on their fields, because it raises the pH in the soil. Cronk said that's the same reason it was taken to the mine site, because the spoils from mines are very acidic, and the lime sludge is used to bring up the pH. Cronk said 2007 was the only time the lime sludge was taken to Murdock, but some was also used in reclamation at the former Riola Mine near Catlin. According to IDNR, the Riola Mine is in the final stages of reclamation.
Rick Manner, director of the Urbana Champaign Sanitary District, said the sewage sludge delivered to Murdock is in a beneficial form after treatment that can be legally distributed as a soil additive. He said it can be used as fertilizer for fields. He said nationwide, about two thirds of biosolids produced are used as soil amendments.
He said the district had been paying Alpena to take the material for the last five years, and the district had a contract with a local trucking firm to get it there. But last year, the IEPA suddenly stopped Alpena from accepting the biosolids. And Manner said that created a problem, because the district had no alternative plan and had to resort to the landfill, which is more expensive. He said the district wants to get back to using the sewage sludge as a soil amendment rather than hauling it to the landfill.
But, according to the AG's complaint, the issue wasn't with the types of materials being accepted, but the handling of them. The complaint alleges that Alpena accepted more sewage sludge than its permit allowed and was stockpiling and storing permitted waste materials, including coal-combustion waste, sludge, pollution-control waste and industrial-process waste in ways that created a water-pollution hazard. The complaint also alleges that Alpena did not handle the waste in a manner compliant with its permits, causing water and air pollution as a result.
Chris Pressnall, assistant counsel for the bureau of air with IEPA, said Murdock has been on the radar of multiple agencies for a while with the first dust complaints coming in 2004, and Alpena was issued a violation notice and addressed the problem. Then in 2007, Pressnall said, more dust complaints and an entry level enforcement action was taken. Then, in 2009, dust and odor complaints were coming in and started ramping up in 2010 and 2011 as citizens became more involved, he said. According to Pressnall, the agency performed numerous inspections in late summer and early fall of 2011, and in February 2012, a violation notice was issued based on those inspections. Pressnall said the dust issues seemed to be abated in 2012, and then complaints became more about the odors. He said the biosolids on the site "were just sitting there and not incorporated into cover." He said the agency worked through the violation notice process, culminating in June 2012 with a notice of intent to pursue legal action, which is the last step before referring an issue to the attorney general's office. He said while this was going on, the AG was doing its own independent investigation, which resulted in the complaint that alleges one count of water pollution and one count of air pollution against Alpena.
Rose, whose office first received complaints about Murdock in September 2011, said the good thing is that the full-court press is on now. He said he got even more involved after driving out to the site one rainy day and soon as he got to Newman, he could smell it.
"It was awful," said Rose, who agreed that the odor issues have been addressed, but continues to monitor the situation and encourages residents to continue getting whatever information they can to the IEPA to help bolster the case against Alpena.