HOMER - Several local citizens joined Prairie Rivers Network officials Thursday morning in Homer to voice concerns that a proposed coal mine southeast of the village could threaten the quantity and quality of underground water supplies in the area and the nearby Salt Fork River.
Sunrise Coal in Terre Haute, Ind., is planning a coal mine in southwest Vermilion County and parts of southeastern Champaign County and also considering getting some of the mine's water supply from the village of Homer, which provides its citizens water from underground wells in the area.
Traci Barkley with the Prairie Rivers Network, a non-profit organization committed to protecting local water resources, said during Thursday's news conference in front of the Homer village hall that the coal mine would need a large amount of water, which raises questions about how that would affect local water supplies.
She said the coal company also plans to release some water into the nearby Salt Fork River, raising concerns that the stream could be polluted if the discharge is not properly monitored. Barkley said communities, such as Oakwood in Vermilion County, rely on the Salt Fork for its water supply, and the government agencies responsible for monitoring the quality of the water that the mine would be allowed to discharge back into the environment don't have a good track record enforcing the state's regulations.
Of the 72 mines in the state, Barkley said, one third have been out of compliance with their permits for more than a year.
Suzanne Jaworowski, director of communications with Sunrise Coal, said in an interview Thursday that the company is also concerned about water quality, and the company will comply with all state regulations. She said the company's Indiana mine must also meet water quality standards, and it's typical for a coal mine to have fluctuating levels in the water it releases, but the company does respond to rectify those levels.
"We abide by the rules," said Jaworowski, adding that the company is a good neighbor in Indiana and will be in Illinois. "Our discharge will be monitored and meet all EPA standards."
Jaworowski said the mine would have a loop system, allowing for the re-use of some water, and any rain water on-site must be captured, and any water discharged from the mine site must meet drinking-water standards.
Jaworowski said Sunrise has leased about 19,500 acres, mostly in southwest Vermilion County, but some properties extend a little into Champaign County. She said Sunrise also has purchased about 400 acres in southwestern Vermilion for the surface operation of the coal mine. She said the company will be applying to the state for its permit within two months, and the details on the mine's water supply will be worked out by then.
Three residents — two from Champaign County and one from Vermilion — also expressed their concerns at Thursday's new conference, posing specific questions in regard to potential threats to the quality and quantity of local water resources. They called for more open discussion among village officials about any negotiations with Sunrise to supply the coal mine with water.
No Homer village officials attended Thursday's news conference, and Homer Mayor David Lucas did not return News-Gazette calls to the village office seeking comment from him. Lucas was out of town, according to the village clerk.
One of the residents, Suzanne Smith, owns a farm, with her husband, in rural Homer along the Salt Fork River. She said she became interested in the proposed coal mine after news reports earlier this year about the mine possibly getting water from Homer and from the Salt Fork.
She questioned whether that plan could affect private wells in the area, like her own, and whether it could negatively affect the river and Homer's water supply and whether the village has the authority to commit a community's water to the project.
Calling for "transparency," Barkley said it's the coal company's right to keep information about the project quiet, but the opportunity to speak up for a community's greatest assets and quality of life often closes before it was ever opened.
Those who spoke at Thursday's news conference were mostly relying on information from media reports earlier in the year about a Homer Village Board meeting when the village officials discussed the possibility of supplying water to the coal company.
To create an opportunity for public discussion on the issue, Barkley announced a public forum that will be hosted by local residents and the Prairie Rivers Network at 7 p.m. May 23 at the Salt Fork Center in Homer. Barkley said Homer village officials will be invited.
Barkley said coal mining is a water-intensive operation, and this mine would need 750,000 gallons of water per day, and the towns of Allerton, Fairmount, Broadlands and Homer combined use only 250,000 gallons per day.
Jaworowski said nothing is firm yet on the water supply to the coal mine, but the company is considering getting some of its water from the village of Homer. She said the coal mine requires about 180,000 gallons of water per day in the operation of the mine, but she doesn't know the number of gallons that the mine would pump into the facility on a daily basis. She said she doesn't know whether that number would be more than the 180,000 gallons a day that would be used in daily operations. She said most of that 180,000 gallons is pumped underground to keep down the dust, and water is also used to wash the coal after it's brought to the surface.
Jaworowski said the village of Homer has indicated to the company that it could supply 120,000 gallons of water per day to the mine.
"They have that available today," she said. "The people with the village are not concerned it will impact the water system in terms of quantity and quality."
But Jaworowski said that won't meet the mine's total water supply needs, so the company is pursuing other options as well. She would not disclose any of those options. She said one scenario could involve the village of Homer creating a reservoir, pumping water from the Salt Fork into that reservoir, and then the coal company pumping it from the reservoir to its mine. But she said there could be other sources, and nothing is firm yet.
In response to being more transparent, Jaworowski said the company has been as open as it reasonably can.
"We are not going to open up ourselves to unreasonable attack," she said, adding that Sunrise is a publicly held company that can't announce certain plans without first making them known to shareholders.
When the company submits its permit application to the state within the next two months, she said, the water plan will be spelled out in detail in those documents.