The Tragic Story of Farmland Communities and Longwall Mining

April 13, 2021 is an especially tragic day for Montgomery County, Illinois. On this day, Illinois Department of Natural Resources/Office of Mines and Minerals/Land Reclamation Division (IDNR), approved Revision 2 of Permit 399 which allows more longwall damage to 7,731.8-acres of land, water resources, graveyards, buildings, highways, or almost anything else located above the path taken by the longwall machine.
Approval of the longwall expansion was not the response that the poignant post on April 13, 2021 on CALM’s web site was intended to engender. IDNR has severed the balance (if there ever was one) between coal extraction and agricultural productivity in Montgomery County with the approval of this expanded shadow area.
Several citizens, including members of CALM, wrote letters of their concerns and objections to IDNR’s approval of this permit with the realization that drainage problems had not been corrected from the planned subsidence years ago. Only 3 petitioners survived the litmus test to be involved in the administrative review of Revision 2 of Permit 399. The many others protesting Revision 2 Permit 399 did not ask for an administrative review within the timeline, or use acceptable wording to indicate a request for an administrative review, or they did not explain how they would be impacted, or how termination of Revision 2 Permit 399 would rectify their losses. Most citizens do not know how to satisfy the legalistic gambit that guarantees their rights to question a coal mining permit.
The 3 petitioners remaining in the administrative review of Revision 2 of Permit 399 were dismissed by Hearing Officer Daniel Schuering on March 31, 2022. The precedent of the inability of citizens to question the validity and operation of coal mining permits had been upheld once again.
The years of trying to figure out what led to the wrongly approved Deer Run Mine in Hillsboro, Illinois have finally brought some clarity to the framework of how Foresight Energy maneuvered the regulatory and government agencies. It appears to have gone in the following way. Illinois coal proponents welcomed Chris Cline Group, an affiliate of Colt Coal from West Virginia. Scott Fowler was hired as Supervisor in the Land Reclamation Division of IDNR. He was receptive to the application for a longwall mining permit from Hillsboro Energy LLC (HEL) that was approved in 2008 for Permit 399. Deer Run Mine was established in Hillsboro, Illinois next door to Hillsboro Hospital, homes, medical offices, etc.
The President of HEL, Roger Dennison, was the employer of Mr. Fowler at Turris Coal in the 1990’s. Interesting that Turris Coal was one of two companies, the other Colt Coal, that bid on the 120,000-acres of coal rights sold in Montgomery County.
The story of Deer Run Mine can only be told through the compilation of the many efforts of residents trying to interact with “powers that be” to defend their community. Imagine that you are the fly on the wall through the many years of struggle that will continue for many years to come. Will the tragic outcomes from longwall mining be recognized by those who could and should change the dynamics in Montgomery County for the better?
Coal dust permeates the air from the coal processing plant, the coal waste sides of the 2 high hazard coal slurry impoundments, loading zones of trucks and rail cars, and the air at Hillsboro Hospital. Air monitors, although requested 2 times with signed petitions, were not considered important for determining the quality of air that residents breathe. Exposure to particulate matter, especially 2.5 microns, is very harmful to children and those with compromised respiratory systems.
Water from Deer Run Mine travels through Central Park Creek past the Middle School and High School and empties into the East Fork of Shoal Creek. Runoff from the mine surface and from the impoundments collect in the surface waters surrounding the mine area. The most harmful chemicals in the mine water are not analyzed or monitored, and the accumulated total chemicals exposed to residents are not known.
The oversight of air and water at Deer Run Mine is done by the IEPA. IEPA gave a lifetime air permit to HEL with no limitations and no required air monitors. The NPDES water permit for Deer Run Mine is a standard mine permit for what would be adequate for a WalMart parking lot runoff. The extraction of coal is protected by State and Federal mining regulations and the applied actions of IDNR and IEPA. IDNR, who approves mine permits, made it very clear that air and water quality in our community is not its purview.
The outcomes from coal extraction are not mitigated, stifle growth of a community, and are permanently damaging.
The first coal slurry incised area in Permit 399 did not have a large enough storage to accommodate the amount of coal slurry produced for the proposed amount of coal extraction. The storage capacity was increased by Revision 1 Permit 399 to enclose and change the incised area to a high hazard impoundment. The public called this a “bait and switch” insult to the safety of the area. This impoundment is in the watershed of Hillsboro Lake which is a drinking water source. The recommendation to move this slurry impoundment away from the Hillsboro Lake watershed was presented in the undisclosed letter of the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) letter of March 24, 2008 to Scott Fowler. This letter was discovered in 2013 and was not included in IDNR’s Permanent Program Finding Report for Permit 399.
“No risk assessment was done” are the words spoken to the participants at a public hearing for Permit 424 in 2013. This response was to a question of why a new coal slurry impoundment was approved that could inundate and destroy several communities when it fails. The leakage of toxic metals and the forever threat of failure are permanent safety concerns in Montgomery County. There will be even more impoundments needed for the toxic coal slurry with the expansion of Deer Run Mine.
Deer Run Mine had several episodes of hot spots (2014, 2015 then sealed until 2016) that caused the mine to shut down due to unsafe levels of carbon monoxide. The potential for fires and explosions in a mine is a real threat to miners below ground and residents above ground. Neither IDNR nor HEL answered questions about the hot zones or about the safety precautions used by Deer Run Mine to protect coal miners and residents. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) determined that HEL could no longer develop longwall panels with a bleeder system and must use an alternative method of mining coal. On January 17, 2020, the Illinois Mining Board approved HEL’s request for a U-type bleederless ventilation system in their longwall panels with an increase in entry and crosscut centers.
These changes in longwall panel development are thought to lower the risks of spontaneous combustion occurring at Deer Run Mine. The safety question is why it took 10 years to establish a longwall mining procedure to control spontaneous combustion. The U.S. Bureau of Mines has published reports as far back as 1994 on longwall mining techniques that are effective in controlling hotspots in mines that contain pyritic sulfur. Pyritic sulfur was known to be a problem in the Illinois Coal Basin and should have been addressed in the operation and design of Deer Run Mine.
The idea of longwall mining with “planned subsidence” was touted as the better way to mine coal that was more profitable and required fewer miners to be employed. It was argued that after all, the subsidence damage occurs almost immediately, and the coal company can fix the damage in a timely manner. In reality, Permit 399, however, did not address how 7-foot deep depressions in flat farmland would be corrected. Subsidence is not planned or predictable, but rather the sinking of land is uneven as it happens above the longwall machine. There is considerable alteration in land formations since longwall panels can be 1400-feet wide and 3-miles long. With the expansion in Revision 2 Permit 399, the number of longwall panels is increased to 17 working from the current panel 4 south.
A 7-foot sink hole in level land results in a bathtub effect that pools water. Some affected lands have been flooded for over a year. The critical issue is how do you drain the water pools and where do you drain the water. An additional complication is that the direction of mining the panels is counter to reclaiming and draining the area. Reclamation would not be able to take place for years after the first panel is subsidized. Drainage issues have not been fixed because they basically are unfixable. The SWCD’s letter to Scott Fowler clearly pointed out the unacceptable time that would be required to reclaim the subsided panels with the proposed direction of mining north to south.
In an attempt to direct pooled water toward a creek, contractors use excavators to create deep ditches and gullies. Topsoil is moved and mixed in the process and much of the topsoil is eroded and lost. A 7-foot slope promotes erosion and loss of topsoil. The eroded soil deposition in creeks and streams further degrades viable water resources.
Permit 399 was not written to protect the farmland, water resources, or surrounding neighborhoods as mining laws are purported to protect. If water resources are not listed in the hydrologic compilation in the permit, how can they be damaged by subsidence? Permit 399 claimed that there were no intermittent streams located in the permit area or in the shadow area. USGS topographic maps showed this information to be incorrect, but IDNR approved it anyway. In the 7,731.8-acre expansion, there were no additional water resources listed and too many times “NA” was the answer to how HEL would mitigate damage to water resources. That was an honest answer because HEL is not liable for material damage to water resources. The stream protection rule never survived the coal industry and regulatory agencies lobbying against it.
IDNR should not have the right to permanently damage agricultural productivity. The once flat efficient cropland is now a challenge to productively farm. IDNR did not recognize the long-term harm to communities by approving the business plan of Foresight Energy. The choice of IDNR to recognize the right of HEL to extract coal over the right of the landowner to farm his land must be stopped. A farmer whose mineral and surface rights have been severed from his land has zero rights and the coal industry has 100% rights. Consider that longwall mining became established in the 90’s before it was known that the surface of land would be severely damaged by longwall mining. There is no way a farmer, even a century ago, would have agreed to the permanent destruction of his land for a nominal fee. Foresight Energy zeroed in on this loophole that gave complete control over the landowner. The landowner does not have the protection of adequate regulations or the support of state or federal regulators. Some might consider this unfortunate situation, “coal collar crime.”
Will the tragic outcomes from longwall mining be recognized by those who could and should change the dynamics in Montgomery County for the better? The focus of the country must be shifted from the destructive excesses allowed to the coal industry to a regulatory process that recognizes and promotes a sustainable survival of land, water, and communities.