HOMER — A day after the village board voted against selling water and sewer services to Sunrise Coal for its proposed mine, the company says the project will proceed as planned.
And the village trustee who changed his vote to a no says it had nothing to do with an anonymous threat he received and everything to do with being unable to support a coal mine.
Trustee Mike Johnson said an anonymous letter he received last month threatening him as a public official "had absolutely nothing to do" with his voting no. Johnson had voted yes in a straw poll vote in January, but in the official vote Monday night, he and two other trustees voted against the water contract, making it impossible for the proposal to get the necessary four yes votes from among the six board members present. The other two trustees voted no in the January straw poll.
"I just hope people don't think that's why I voted 'no,'" said Johnson, referring to the threatening letter. He said after touring Sunrise's mine in Indiana last year and seeing the slurry ponds and coal-waste piles, which were generating dust in the winds that day, he "pretty much didn't want to support the coal mine."
He said he told Sue Smith, a rural Homer resident opposed to the water and sewer agreement and coal mine, in a conversation with her three months ago that he was going to vote no, and the threatening letter didn't come to his house until weeks after that.
According to a Homer police report, the letter came in the mail to Johnson's house on Jan. 2 and had been mailed in Ogden.
The letter states: "We do know that you have some unsavory history in your income matters, that would be in your best interests if it was not reported to the proper authorities. Perhaps you should consider this information in placing your vote! Please be assured that that information will be passed along, should you chose to vote 'for' the sale of our precious water to these people."
And it's signed "Concerned citizens."
Johnson, who is a senior partner in an investment group and real estate business, said he has no clue what the letter is talking about, and he has nothing to hide in his business.
Johnson said he was the only no vote early on in the process when the village was deciding whether to move forward with contract negotiations and enter into a reimbursement agreement in which Sunrise would pay the village's legal costs. Johnson said he didn't even want to get in the coal mine's pocket at that point.
"I was hoping the whole thing would die right there," he said. But the board approved moving forward with negotiations, and Johnson said at the time of the straw poll vote he felt it was right to go ahead and get a final contract in writing that could be voted up or down later.
In reference to Monday night's final vote, Johnson said he couldn't support the coal mine and that included the village of Homer supplying water and sewer services to it.
Suzanne Jaworowski, communications director for Sunrise Coal, said it's unfortunate the company wasn't able to create a partnership with the village, because it would have been "a win-win."
But, she said, the project will proceed as planned, and the company has other alternatives to obtain the treated water and sewer services and raw water it will need for the planned Bulldog coal mine. Jaworowski would not disclose any details about the company's alternative water plans. She said the company still has more than 19,000 acres under lease, involving about 100 property owners. Most of the leased land is in southwestern Vermilion County.
"We appreciate all the village of Homer did to consider working on this. They gave it careful consideration, and we respect their vote, and we will move forward with the additional options we have in place," she said, adding that this won't set back the time line.
She said the company still plans to have its permit with the state approved this year and to start operations next year.
"This is not the end of the line. It's an obstacle, but not a deal breaker," she said.
For Homer, it may mean increasing water rates in the community.
Mayor David Lucas said after Monday night's meeting that without the additional revenue that would have been generated by the coal company purchasing treated water, the village will have to consider increasing its water rates. Homer residents currently pay $3.15 per 1,000 gallons of water, and Lucas said those rates haven't increased in seven years, and the current water budget is running a deficit.