DANVILLE – Indiana-based Sunrise Coal LLC continues to explore the possibility of a new mine in East Central Illinois, seeking mineral rights leases with landowners in Champaign and Vermilion counties.
But some landowners and environmental activists are concerned about a mine's possible impacts on land and water.
Sunrise Coal has been contacting landowners in the two-county area near Homer, Broadlands, Allerton, Fairmount and Sidell about leasing their mineral rights, stirring concerns about protecting landowners' rights and about damage to the land and waterways under which coal may be mined.
Earlier this month, farm bureaus in both counties held informational meetings for landowners about the plans of Terre Haute, Ind.,-based Sunrise Coal, in order to educate them on how to handle the leasing process.
And Vermilion County farmer Charles Goodall recently held an informational meeting in Broadlands, where about 100 people learned more about the possible impacts of coal mining on the land, waterways, water supplies and the environment.
Goodall, who farms in the Allerton and Sidell area, said he is not one of the landowners who has been contacted by Sunrise about a possible lease of his mineral rights, but he's concerned about possible effects to the rich farming ground in that area.
Specifically, Goodall said, he's concerned that the surface land could subside, or sink, depending on the type of mining, and he's also concerned about the amount of water the mine would use, and any effect on local water supplies.
"One reason the land is so productive here is it's drainage sensitive, and we all have drainage systems; tiles that work well and we tune them up constantly," said Goodall, who added that any sinking could damage drainage systems.
Sunrise Coal executives did not return News-Gazette phone calls seeking comment about their plans in the two-county area, but indications are that the room-and-pillar method of mining, rather than long-wall mining, would be used.
In long-wall mining, sinking is expected, but it's not expected with room-and-pillar, although it could still occur with that method, according to Traci Barkley, water resources scientist with the Prairie Rivers Network . (Goodall is a member of the board of Prairie Rivers Network.)
Barkley said Sunrise plans an operation that would border the towns of Homer and Broadlands in Champaign County and Allerton, Sidell and Fairmount in Vermilion County. Barkley attended the Vermilion County Farm Bureau landowners' meeting, which was also attended by Sunrise Coal President Brent Bilsland, who provided some information about the company's plans. She said Bilsland told landowners that the mine would use the room-and-pillar practice, and the coal would be washed on site, requiring construction of a slurry impoundment. Also, a rail spur would be built to transport the coal.
Brad Uken, manager of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, said Sunrise already has some land under lease in both counties.
Barkley said leases have not specified what method would be used, and landowners at the meeting in Broadlands were encouraged to specify room-and-pillar in their deals.
According to the Sunrise Coal website, the company's 260 employees operate four underground mines in Indiana that all use the room-and-pillar-method. About 90 percent of Sunrise coal goes to several Indiana utilities.
Sunrise is a wholly owned subsidiary of Hallador Energy Co ., which is publicly traded on the Nasdaq stock market.
Sunrise traces its beginnings back to 2001, when Ron Laswell leased the Carlisle Reserve in Carlisle, Ind. In 2002, Laswell and his brother, Steve Laswell, formed Sunrise Coal, and by 2006, they were developing the Carlisle mine.
In late 2004, Hank and Brent Bilsland, father and son, joined Sunrise, and by 2009, the company brought its fourth mine online. Since 2006, Brent Bilsland has been Sunrise's president.
If Sunrise's first venture into Illinois coal becomes a reality, it would not be the first time the Laswells and Bilslands have mined coal in Vermilion County.
The Laswell brothers and Bilsland family were three of the four principal owners in Catlin Coal Inc., which developed the Riola Mine in Catlin, according to the Sunrise website. The Riola Mine was sold in 2000 to Black Beauty Coal Co. along with the leases and permits to the Vermilion Grove Mine. Black Beauty has since closed both mines, leaving Vermilion County with no active mines.
Januari Smith with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources  said that Sunrise would have to go through the department's permitting process, which includes a review by IDNR, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and other state and federal agencies. The process also includes notification of local governmental bodies, local sewage and water districts and water companies as well as a public hearing to gather input from local residents. Natural Resources officials then consider all comments and information gathered in making a decision to issue, deny or require modifications to the coal mine application.
But, Smith said, the first step is for a company to gain the mineral rights in the targeted area – even before submitting an application to the state – and Sunrise has not submitted an application at this time.
As the leasing process continues, Uken said landowners need to be educated about the coal mining and leasing process.
"I think it is more than just the lease. They need to fully understand the mining process to make a well-educated decision before signing a lease," said Uken, who added that the farm bureaus in both counties are ready to answer landowners' questions. Uken said the farm bureau encourages landowners to have their own legal counsel review leases to make sure various protections are in place.
Goodall, who farms in Vermilion County, said people who want to convey their coal or mineral rights for lease should get an attorney experienced in such matters. He said landowners should be concerned with building in their own protections in their lease rather than relying on government regulatory agencies to look out for their interests.
And Goodall, like Barkley and the Prairie Rivers Network, is most concerned about possible impacts to land and water.
"We definitely want to avoid damage to the farmland. It's some of the most productive farmland in the world, and we must reflect on whether it's appropriate to do this on this quality of land that's been around for hundreds of years," he said.
Barkley said it would take a large amount of water to wash the coal, which raises the question of whether the underground aquifer could support that demand. She said the washing would be done on site and require a slurry impoundment that would catch runoff.
In that runoff, Barkley said, can be chlorides, sulfates and metals that come from the coal or rocks surrounding the coal, and it's either discharged to area surface waters or injected back into the ground.
Either way, she said, it's releasing large amounts into the environment, threatening area streams or the underground water supply.
Barkley said citizens need to know what is being planned.
"People need to begin talking to their county board members ... and generally become more informed about how mining impacts communities and not just landowners," Barkley said. "There are community level impacts like increased traffic and noise. These are really long-term impacts that come from the one-time extraction of coal."