Thursday, August 30, 2012

Bulldog Mine

In the last post to this blog I shared the great news that Bald Eagles are once again nesting and raising young on the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River in East Central Illinois. I know this because I live on the river and spotted them three times near the cabin in the early spring. After my sightings I read the Salt Fork Friends blog that confirmed a nest just a few miles downstream from the cabin.

Two weeks later I canoed a seven mile stretch of the river hoping to spot the eagles myself and sure enough I saw one juvenile and two adults!
I have learned over the years not to take a good camera canoeing with a big dog. I apologize for the poor quality of the photo.
The first eagle spotted was a juvenile who got spooked and left his lunch in the river. I saw him fly off and then twice later perched in trees downstream from the fish he was eating.
For those of you who don't know, juvenile Bald Eagles do not have white heads and can easily be mistaken for Turkey Vultures or even Red Tailed Hawks from a distance. Both juvenile and adult eagles are great at fishing but they are also scavengers and do eat carrion of all sorts. So the next time you see a "buzzard" eating road kill slow down and make sure it's not an eagle. If it is, honk your horn or shout at it to scare it away. Eagles should learn to be afraid of roads, not think of them as snack bars.

So what does any of this have to do with the "Bulldog Mine"?

It has come to my attention that a company called Sunrise Coal has been secretively buying the mineral rights to nearly 20,000 acres of land within fifteen miles of the cabin. The plan is to build a room and pillar coal mine 300 feet beneath the surface of these 20,000 acres. Four hundred acres have been purchased for the processing facility.

Coal mining is a water use intense process. After the coal has been mined it is washed to remove the "dirt". The "dirt" contains heavy metals and salts that can destroy habitat and human health. The runoff from the washing process is toxic. The "dirt" that is washed off the coal is also toxic.

In order to process the coal and contain this toxic waste 400 acres have been purchased and another 200 acres may be needed to build sludge ponds where the waste will be "contained". The only protection between the ground water and the sludge ponds will be a four foot thick layer of soft clay. Not all the water used in the process will fit in the sludge ponds. Most of it will be diverted into the Vermilion River by way of the Salt Fork through the Olive Branch Creek, or another tributary called the Little Vermilion.

According to Sunrise Coal all of this is perfectly safe. Below I will outline the Pros and Cons of the Bulldog mine as I see it.

Pro: The mine will bring three to four hundred new jobs to the area. This would imply stable employment which could lead to new home ownership. New home sales would increase the tax-base and that would improve the quality of local schools, infrastructure, and grow local businesses, not to mention create new spin-off and start-up companies that would further improve the economic picture.

Con: Modern mining techniques do not require long-term mining. What used to take several thousand miners several decades to accomplish can be achieved by a few hundred well trained employees in as little as possibly four or five years. This modern form of mining can not be done cost effectively by hiring unskilled labor. The workers at the mine will most likely be experienced existing employees of Sunrise Coal, temporarily located at the Bulldog site until the job is finished. Itinerant employees rarely buy homes where they work. More often they rent and if you've ever lived in a college town you know how well itinerant residents maintain their rental properties. These kinds of workers send most of their wages back home and do not invest much in the local economy. Once the community understands that their new neighbors will only be in town for a few years it is unlikely that anyone will invest in start-up or spin-off businesses other than taverns and or liquor stores.

Pro: The mineral rights money paid to the land owners will improve their quality of life and that could trickle down into the local economy. According to Sunrise Coal the farmers will be able to continue to farm around the six hundred acre processing plant and sludge ponds and no permanent damage will be done to their farmland. Once the coal has been extracted the coal company plans to back-fill the mine. The water released into the river will be tested regularly.

Con: A room and pillar mine is like a checker board. The black spaces are left in tack to support the crust of the earth while the white spaces are hollowed out to extract the coal. This leaves enormous hollows under ground. These hollows will most likely sink to a degree over time despite the pillars and or back fill. This sinking is called subsidence. When this happens the network of drainage tiles that make the land arable for farming crack and the land becomes uneven with poor drainage. Repairing nearly 20,000 acres of drain tiles would wipe-out any profit the farmers made from the sale of their mineral rights. The immediate loss of the 600 acre processing site and sludge ponds, some of the world’s finest agricultural soil, would be irreversible.

The money received by the farmers for their mineral rights is subject to taxation at nearly the same rate as if they had sold the land in it's entirety but because it is not a real estate sale, simply a mineral rights sale, only the farmer is responsible for future property tax. This means that even though the land is now producing revenues from both farming and coal production the coal production value is not figured into the property tax rate so the local school district does not benefit from the increased revenue.

The back fill will be a mix of waste that Sunrise Coal will be paid to dispose of. It could include sludge from municipal waste water treatment plants (human waste) and any other form of waste that can be found in a landfill (garbage). The mine is so deep it could also qualify as a disposal site for various forms of toxic waste, including sludge from other Sunrise Coal operations.

While the mine is in operation the piles of coal awaiting shipment by train or truck will be subject to wind erosion. Similar piles have been observed to spread coal dust up to 1/4 of a mile from the site during high winds. Refined coal dust is far more hazardous to human, wildlife, and livestock respiration than the typical dust kicked up in a wind storm.

The increased truck and train traffic will do anything but improve the quality of life in the area. It will destroy wildlife, disturb the peace, and make the roads more dangerous. Many people who live in rural America do it specifically to avoid the things the mine will bring to their lives.

The farmers will most likely wind up with pieces of property that are so undesirable they will never be able to sell, farm, or even live on them comfortably after the sludge ponds and back fill begin to seep into the ground water. The income from the sale of the mineral rights will be absorbed over the years by paying property tax on an essentially useless piece of property.

Pro: The water required to process the coal will require new infrastructure to carry that volume of water to the site. This new infrastructure will be paid for by Sunrise Coal. The new more efficient infrastructure has the potential to lower the water bill for residents in the town of Homer Illinois. This infrastructure will be left behind after the mine is closed.

Con: The amount of water necessary to process coal is most likely not available in the area without drilling new wells into the groundwater and tapping into the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River. The volume of water necessary will almost certainly kill the river's ecosystem and periodically dry up all the surrounding wells. Residents will have to learn to live with water shortages and eventually drink and cook with expensive bottled water after the sludge seepage has contaminated the groundwater.

Once the mine is closed and the water level in the river returns it might recover in a generation of two, at least above the discharge point on the Olive Branch or above the mouth of the Little Vermilion but, this rebirth will be short lived as the seepage from the sludge and back fill contaminated ground water eventually reaches the river from multiple entry points. The Mussels, Crayfish, Bass, Bald Eagles and all other flora and fauna will have little to no chance of a full recovery.

The residents of Homer who enjoy temporarily lower water bills will become dependent on the over-sized infrastructure left behind by the mine. Eventually it will require maintenance and they will be responsible for its upkeep. Given the normal rate of inflation, the few dollars they save while the mine is in operation will not be enough to maintain the infrastructure left behind. In the long run their water bill will be higher than it would have been if they had not installed the over-sized infrastructure.

Additionally the residents of the area will be indefinitely stuck with an abandoned railroad spur which will become a source of frustration for any future ideas about farming or development of the ground where the spur is located. Someone will eventually have to pay to remove it.

Pro: Locally harvested coal helps the country reduce its energy dependence on foreign sources and provides a cheaper domestic product for consumption in the U.S.

Con: Sunrise Coal trades domestically and internationally. No sales tax is collected domestically on its international sales. It is as likely that the coal will be used to power cities in China, India, or Mexico as is that the coal will be used in the U.S. What is most likely is that the coal will be sold to the highest bidder who may not be a U.S. energy company.

Obviously I have painted a bleak picture but the fact is that if even one or two of my predictions come to pass there will be little if anything anyone can do to turn the clock back. Right now in Northern Illinois a coal mine has been cited 621 times for violations of various environmental statuettes. Their total liability if prosecuted could amount to 30 million dollars in fines. Unfortunately lack of enforcement is the norm, the State's Attorney General is only seeking 500 thousand in damages and nothing is being proposed to repair the damage the mine has caused.

In my opinion it is better to prevent this kind of potential disaster than it is to cross fingers and hope for the best.

In closing I would like to say that the issuance of permits does not guarantee no harm will be done. Research and data are at best only educated guesses. No one can say with certainty what will happen until the deed is done. I sincerely hope I will not find myself in a position to say “I told you so”. If you feel the same way please sigh this petition. If you're even more fired up you can email the Village of Homer Board of Trustees to encourage them not to sell water to Sunrise Coal and contact these State and Federal legislators directly to let them know that you stand with me against the Bulldog Mine. 

For more information visit: Stand Up To Coal

Update! Another petition is being circulated to help stop the Bulldog Mine! Sign the new petiton here: