HOMER — Susan Forsyth has had a "Stand Up to Coal" sign in her front yard since the "issue" first began several months ago.
The issue is Sunrise Coal's request that the village of Homer supply the company's proposed Bulldog coal mine in Vermilion County with treated water and sewer services and a second request for raw water to be used in the actual mining of coal.
For Forsyth, it's an environmental issue.
"I would rather not see the mine period," said Forsyth, who has attended most of the Homer Village Board meetings since last summer when the village and Sunrise Coal officials began discussing the water agreements. The meetings have been well attended by Homer area residents who are against the mine, in addition to representatives of the Prairie Rivers Network, the local nonprofit organization that protects waterways, and the local Stand Up to Coal group.
Homer Mayor David Lucas said he sees the issue simply as a water request like any other request the village may get for water. The village's water supply comes from underground wells west and north of the village, which uses about 90,000 gallons a day, according to Lucas.
"We are a public utility and should provide water to people who request it," said Lucas, adding that the debate has revolved around what this company does. "We sell water to individuals who request it. Unless they're doing something immoral, illegal or unethical, we don't try to determine the value of that particular operation or business. So, that's how I've been approaching it, and I've been encouraging the village board members to do the same. If we allow ourselves to be swayed by people's opinion on the value of a company's operation, we wouldn't be able to make any decision about someone's service."
Village water lines
Sunrise Coal, based in Terre Haute, Ind., has asked that the village provide sewer services and up to 20,000 gallons of treated water per day to the mine's surface operation, which would be several miles southeast of Homer. The coal company has also asked the village to provide about 325,000 gallons of untreated water per day initially and up to 540,000 gallons per day as the mine ramps up production.
The village, coal company and their attorneys have been hashing out an agreement, at the cost of Sunrise, for the treated water and sewer services first, and a final draft of that contract will be presented for a vote at Monday night's Homer village board meeting at 7 p.m. at the village hall, 500 E. Second St., Homer.
Some of the sticking issues have been whether the coal mine or the village will take ownership of the 5 miles of water and sewer lines, which the coal mine has already agreed to build, per the village's specifications, at a cost estimated to be about $1.3 million. The village officials had initially discussed the coal mine owning the lines, and the village retaining an option for ownership in the future, but Sunrise officials said at the last meeting that they want to turn over the lines to the village immediately.
The board has not yet decided whether it will pursue a second agreement for raw water but will discuss that after its vote on the treated water agreement.
Going door to door
Forsyth said the village board isn't looking at the "whole picture" and is more interested in the revenue. She said she has concerns about the raw-water request, whether it will negatively affect local water resources, especially the nearby Salt Fork River, and she worries about the potential for pollution in the future. Motivated by the issue, Forsyth is now a candidate for the village board in the April election, and she's been going door to door, talking to residents. Forsyth said many are against the mine for water supply and environmental reasons.
Lucas said it's not the village board's intent to put the community's water source at risk. He said the village needs to ensure that this agreement is handled properly, and it will benefit Homer through additional infrastructure and revenue that will take pressure off of the current bill payers.
"That's our responsibility," said Lucas, adding that it's the duty of citizens and the Prairie Rivers Network to make sure the coal company abides by what they are supposed to do and watch the rivers and streams and make sure they are not polluted.
As Monday night's meeting approaches, Lucas has been distributing information about the water request from the village's perspective to local media, the village's website and Facebook. And Homer area residents against the water deal have also been active, going door to door talking to residents about the issue. Homer area resident Sue Smith told village board members at the last meeting that she has spoken with more than 100 Homer residents and the majority are not in favor of an agreement with the coal company.
In his statement, Lucas asserts that the village's water system and sewer system have plenty of capacity to meet the coal company's request for treated water and sewer services without stressing the system, and the village would still have the capacity for growth. He says "part of the desire of seeing this company establish itself in our area is to bring people and jobs to our town."
Board vote to come
Some of the village's board members are still undecided on the treated-water request heading into Monday night's meeting, and some have deeper concerns about the raw-water request.
Board Member Ray Cunningham said he cannot commit to a yes or no vote until he sees the final contract in print and can review it. Generally, he said he sees the coal company as any other vendor who would want a contract for water and the request as any other that must be carefully considered. He said there are advantages and disadvantages, he said, and one incentive is the coal company paying a higher rate for the water it uses.
"We really need the final proposal in print and to read through it," he said.
He said he has deep concerns with the request for raw water. He said he questions whether the village has the capacity to deliver, because the quantities discussed are far in excess of what's currently feasible for the village.
Board Member Guy James said he can't answer whether he will vote yes or no on the proposed treated-water agreement. He said there are things he doesn't like about the contract. He said after six months of hashing things out, the board is backed into a corner where people will not be happy either way.
"It's a big decision to make, and I couldn't tell you how to it's going to turn out," he said. On the raw-water request, James said regardless of what some say, there is not an unlimited supply of water.
Board Member Larry Mingee said he's undecided and doesn't want to say anything publicly at this point.
Board Member Kevin Knott said he has his mind made up, but he will not disclose publicly how he will vote, because he doesn't want one side or the other to use his decision to sway other board members. Knott said he's been considering everyone's input and has talked to a lot of people who have given him facts on both sides. He said he's considered the economics as well as the environmental issues, and he has made up his mind on the treated-water proposal but not on the raw-water request.
"That's a whole other issue," he said. "I'm undecided there. It is a lot of water and it could be problematic. Until I see a proposal, that's totally another issue."
Village Board Members Mike Johnson and Roy Woodmansee could not be reached for comment on the issue.