Plans for a controversial coal mine in Eastern Illinois farm country ground to an unexpected halt Monday evening when the village of Homer, Illinois, voted not to provide the coal company with water it needs to operate the mine.

Although the mine’s fate is still undecided, the vote was an important victory for activists trying to stop the mine.

It “represents a sea change,” said Traci Barkley, a water resources scientist at Prairie Rivers Network, a Champaign, Illinois, environmental group. “I think we’re starting to see decision makers value water over any potential benefits from hosting a coal mine.”

The Prairie Rivers Network is a member of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Sunrise Coal spokeswoman Suzanne Jaworowski had a very different take on the vote. “This won’t stop the project,” she said.

Grassroots opposition

Sunrise Coal’s proposed mine, known as the Bulldog Mine, typifies a recent effort by coal companies to mine coal underneath prime Midwestern farmland. The mine would be built about 300 feet underground. Beginning in 2008, Sunrise quietly went door to door to residents to buy up mineral rights beneath 23,000 acres.

In 2009 Charles Goodall, a seventh-generation farmer in Sidell, Illinois, whose farm sits near the edge of the Bulldog Mine tract, founded a grassroots group called Stand Up To Coal to oppose coal mining in this farming area.  Other environmental groups, led by Prairie Rivers Network, joined the fight.

The deal with Homer would have provided the company up to 20,000 gallons of treated water a day. The village’s businesses and 1,196 residents currently use 90,000 gallons a day, and the village water plant can produce 150,000 gallons of water a day, according to an op-ed article in a local paper by Homer mayor David Lucas arguing for the water sale.

The mine would also need more than 350,000 gallons of untreated water each day to wash rock, clay and other impurities from coal after it’s unearthed. The source of that water is also undetermined. Residents worry that the mine would draw down valuable groundwater aquifers or the scenic Salt Fork River, which flows nearby.

The coal mine’s opponents also worry about valuable farmland subsiding because of the digging underground, which could cause expensive damage to buried drainage pipes (also known as “tiles”) that make farming possible in this table-flat area. They also worry that being neighbors to a coal mine will trigger falling land values—and a diminished property tax base—for residents whose schools, fire department and other services are funded largely by property taxes from the valuable nearby farmland.

A lot of the advocacy was meant “to communicate and educate board members to stand up for something bigger,” Barkley said. “Do we want to be a coal-mining town or choose a more productive economic future?”

Sunrise rejects the argument that coal represents a lousy economic bet for small villages like Homer. “We are looking forward to bringing 300 good-paying jobs, and we will also be good neighbors in that community,” Jaworowski said.

Local officials swayed on water issue

When the environmental advocates began pressing their case last summer in Homer, straw polls indicated that five members of the village’s six-member board were in favor of the deal, Barkley said. But three of them changed their minds as the details of the deal emerged, she said.

For example, the company originally said it would need as little as 4,000 gallons a day, but the final contract [PDF] allowed them to extract 20,000 gallons a day beginning the third year of the mine’s operation.

Meanwhile, word filtered in about other Illinois and Indiana towns that had become coal-mining areas. Last fall, for example, the Illinois Attorney General filed a complaint with the Illinois Pollution Control Board over odors and water pollution from the Murdock Mine in Newman, Illinois. Although the mine is tapped out, Illinois law allows the owner, Alpena Vision Resources, to use the spent mine as a dump for coal ash, sewage solids and other industrial wastes.

Local residents also learned from other Midwestern coal-mining towns about “all the damage that comes with the one-time benefit of mining coal,” Goodall said. That includes surface impoundments with toxic substances such as arsenic, mercury, and selenium; subsiding farmland, and damaged drainage tiles.

When buying mineral rights from residents or persuading towns to let them build new mines, coal-mining companies “try at all costs to avoid any information that may be negative about coal,” Goodall said.

“We aren’t a sleepy, impoverished group of people,” Goodall said. “Maybe it’s a little premature to say democracy is alive and well locally, but it was alive and well last night.”

The decision, however, may not be final. The potential water sale is a way to fill a dangerous shortfall in the village’s water treatment budget, David Lucas, mayor of Homer, told Midwest Energy News. He said he’ll talk to a village trustee who voted for the water deal last week in a straw poll but against it Monday night.

If the trustee is satisfied with a change in the contract language, the deal will be reconsidered in March, Lucas said. However, “If his opposition is not with the contact but based on a philosophical objection to selling water to a coal mine, then it would probably become a dead issue.”

In the meantime, however, Sunrise Coal now needs to look elsewhere to find 20,000 gallons a day of treated water. Where will it come from?

“I’m not going to comment on our sources,” Jaworowski said. “But we have other alternatives.”

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