Steve Sniderwin found one of his cornfields covered in thick black gunk which ultimately killed the crop. He thinks the ditch around Sugar Camp's gob pile flooded and run-off overflowed into his field. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Neighbors say state and federal regulators haven’t held Foresight Energy accountable for hundreds of safety and environmental violations.

Third in a three-part series

Monday: Coal mine expansion could swallow family farms in southern Illinois

Tuesday: Why TVA coal from the Illinois Basin is still lucrative and in-demand

Today: Illinois mine expands despite safety, environmental concerns

Two weeks before Christmas in 2015, 20-year-old Tyler Rath was driving a tractor pulling longwall mining equipment down a steep slope in the Sugar Camp mine. He was unable to make a left turn at the bottom and ran into the wall.

The trailer he was pulling kept moving, ramming into his tractor from behind. The driver’s compartment was crushed, and Rath died from his injuries, leaving behind a wife with an infant and 2-year-old child.

Sugar Camp has become Illinois’ most productive mine in the past decade and it continues to expand, with much of the coal it mines owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority government utility. Yet neither the TVA nor federal and state regulators have done enough to ensure safety and environmental best practices at the mine, critics say.

Many locals viewed Rath’s death as another example of the mine, owned by Foresight Energy, cutting corners to maximize profits, and getting away with it.

In risky industry, safety record stands out

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) ruled that Rath’s death occurred because the company had failed to adequately train miners and to follow safety policies and procedures, including ones put in place after a similar 2013 accident that left a tractor operator with a broken leg.

Other tractor operators interviewed by MSHA also reported losing traction on steep slopes inside the mine. MSHA found the company did not use equipment meant for such steep slopes, and it did not properly maintain the tractors, with photos showing badly worn treads.

Coal mining comes with risks for workers, but even compared to industry standards, Sugar Camp’s safety record stands out. MSHA noted that the mine’s injury-incidence rate was higher than the national average for similar longwall mines, at 3.65 non-fatal days lost compared to 3.25 nationally.

MSHA also found Sugar Camp culpable in miner deaths in 2013 and 2014. In May 2014, William-Daniel Hans Payne was killed after being stuck between a “coal rib” and a roof-bolting machine driven by another miner. The MSHA report said Sugar Camp failed to maintain the roof-bolting machine, which had a tendency to drift to the right when it was supposed to be going straight, and it noted previous non-fatal incidents of workers being crushed by machinery at Sugar Camp.

Six months earlier, Dallas Travelstead was killed by a falling 1-ton piece of coal and rock inside Sugar Camp. MSHA found that the company did not have adequate training policies in place to prevent such accidents.

MSHA fined Foresight $69,400 for violations related to Rath’s death. Legal proceedings are ongoing, and Foresight has not yet paid. MSHA data shows that Foresight has been fined hundreds of times for various violations, with fines levied mostly in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. The assessed penalty for Rath’s death is the largest noted in MSHA records.

A representative for Foresight and the company’s majority owner, Murray Energy, declined to comment for this story.

Layers of regulation, persistent violations

Steve Sniderwin emphasizes that he is not anti-mining.

He’s just angry and dejected by the way Sugar Camp has impacted his farming and quality of his life. Sniderwin, 59, has lived within a two-mile radius his entire life, off Sniderwin Road near his great-grandfather’s barn with faded sunflowers painted on it. His 88-year-old father also still lives nearby. From his porch Sniderwin sees Sugar Camp’s towering gob pile — coal waste that fills the air with dust on windy days. And he hears constant noise from Sugar Camp’s nearby processing plant.

Three years ago Sniderwin found one of his 40-acre cornfields covered in thick black gunk which ultimately killed the crop. He thinks the ditch around the gob pile flooded and run-off overflowed into his field.

After he called state officials, Sugar Camp agreed to pay for the damage, Sniderwin said, but he thinks the payments won’t compensate him for the full lost productivity of the land, which is now contaminated with sodium.

In June 2016, Sugar Camp filed a permit application to expand its operations by 38,000 acres, the latest of multiple expansions over the years. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources demanded Sugar Camp make some modifications to the permit, including how it would make sure that mining didn’t cause groundwater pollution from 150 abandoned oil and gas wells in the area.

The permit review includes a list of more than 125 state and federal violations by Sugar Camp in the past three years: “black water” and coal slurry being released into waterways; coal waste overflowing its impoundments; aluminum, manganese and other compounds above allowable levels in effluent; “orange staining” of waterways; waste containment structures not adequately maintained; coal dust and mud accumulating on a road; failure to follow record-keeping procedures.

After taking public comments, reviewing the modified application and being assured that all the violations were resolved, IDNR approved Sugar Camp’s permit on Nov. 28, 2017.

Since Sugar Camp includes coal owned by the TVA and leased by Foresight Energy, the TVA also must approve the company’s mining plans.

The TVA conducted an Environmental Assessment in 2011 regarding Sugar Camp’s plan to expand its operations to mine an additional almost 400,000 tons of TVA-owned coal under 2,600 acres of land in Hamilton County.

The mining would cause the land to subside, the TVA’s review noted, and would involve the construction of infrastructure including a bleeder shaft to circulate clean air into the mine. TVA found that the mine would also discharge waste into the Big Muddy River and a creek.

The document noted that once mining was done, Sugar Camp would be responsible for repairing damage and dredging streams that would otherwise flood land lowered by mine subsidence. Aquifer levels would drop because of subsidence, the assessment said, and Sugar Camp would have to pay for reductions in well water, as well as for temporary crop loss due to flooding.

The assessment also noted that streams would have increased silt and possibly pesticide and nutrient loading and acid drainage because of the mining, and utility lines would likely need to be repaired.

The review noted that the area Sugar Camp wanted to mine could include 10 state-listed and two federally-listed endangered species including the Indiana bat, the river cooter (a type of turtle) and the piping plover. Wildlife officials attached radio transmitters to lactating Indiana bats, which are federally endangered, and found trees where they nested near the mine.

In 2013, TVA again conducted an Environmental Assessment on Sugar Camp’s proposal to mine TVA-owned coal under an additional 880 acres, raising similar issues. Despite the concerns raised, in both cases TVA approved the proposals.

As jobs disappear, political clout doesn’t

Environmental impacts and health and safety problems for miners are nothing new in Illinois. Large swaths of the state have long been shaped by coal mining, and families here talk with sadness but also pride about relatives who have lost their lives, limbs and health in the mines. Locals, it seemed, were often more than willing to put up with the problems of an industry so intrinsic to their economy and culture.

But the jobs and economic stimulation provided by coal mining today are nothing like in decades past, even as the impact on the environment is more extreme and obvious than ever, because of the longwall mining method now in use.   

At the time of Rath’s death, Sugar Camp was employing 401 miners pulling out 77,000 tons of raw coal per day in three shifts.

Longwall mining is highly automated and employs relatively few people compared to the room and pillar method of days past. In 1930, there were more than 50,000 miners in Illinois, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. In 1980 there were more than 18,000, and by 2014 there were just over 4,000 miners.

Illinois coal mines used to be unionized and promise decent pay, benefits and retirement; today Foresight’s four Illinois mines are all non-union.

But while public support for coal companies has seemingly waned, support from elected officials and state regulators continues. And the coal industry contributes generously to them.

Since 2009, Foresight Energy has donated more than $2 million to Illinois political campaigns, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections, including $146,500 to former Governor Pat Quinn for his 2010 and 2014 campaigns; more than $48,000 to former state senator Gary Forby; and more than $70,000 to state senator Andy Manar, both representing downstate districts around Foresight’s mines.

Last year, then-state representative Brandon Phelps resigned from the legislature citing health reasons and promptly registered as a lobbyist, with clients including Foresight Energy. Foresight had given him a campaign donation shortly before he retired, and $28,500 in total donations since 2010.

Meanwhile industry influence typically goes beyond direct campaign contributions, amplified by the work and additional donations of lobbyists. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Foresight hired eight separate lobbyists in Illinois in 2015 and 2016, up from four in 2014.

The executive director of the Illinois EPA, Alec Messina, was previously a registered lobbyist for an organization representing Foresight along with coal company Peabody Energy and several major coal-fired power plant owners.

In 2014 Tony Mayville, manager of mine safety for the IDNR, was fired after it was revealed he took donations from companies including Foresight for his campaign for the state legislature, while he was still working at IDNR. Mayville got his job back thanks to a ruling from a state commission.

Critics allege a culture of lax oversight

Environmental groups and other critics often complain that political influence pays off for coal companies, and state regulators are too lax in their oversight of operations including Foresight’s. They cite several examples involving Sugar Camp.

In May 2013, Sugar Camp applied for a permit for two underground injection wells, which would allow the disposal of contaminated groundwater into the earth. In November 2013 the IEPA wrote to Sugar Camp about deficiencies in the application, and in December 2013 an IEPA inspector visited the site. They found both wells already being drilled and surface infrastructure in place; the construction had been going on since June. By February 2014 Sugar Camp had built surface infrastructure for the second well, still without a permit. The IEPA filed notices of violation against the mine for building the wells without a permit.

But then the IEPA granted the company a temporary emergency permit allowing them to complete the wells, and later gave them an extension on that emergency permit.

In a 2015 Securities & Exchange Commission filing, Foresight noted the pending violation: “While Sugar Camp believes this referral may result in the assessment of a penalty, we believe any such penalty will be immaterial.”

And indeed the state and Sugar Camp reached a settlement, in which the state recognized “the social and economic value of the pollution source,” noted that Sugar Camp employs 400 people directly and 200 indirectly, and had generated more than $78 million in state, local and federal taxes. Sugar Camp was ordered to pay $40,000 and the matter was closed.

The state also helped Foresight obtain water for its operations. Under an agreement approved by former Governor Rod Blagojevich in 2007, Foresight’s Sugar Camp and Williamson mines have the right to withdraw water for free from Rend Lake, a reservoir on the Big Muddy River that provides drinking water and is a popular spot for boating and fishing. Sugar Camp is allowed to withdraw up to 4.3 million gallons per day from the lake, and Williamson can withdraw up to 2.2 million gallons, to use for coal slurry, dust control and other needs. Residents have long complained about the allocation, worrying that the lake won’t be fit for recreation if water levels drop too low.

Neighbors fear widening impact

Sugar Camp has about 1.3 billion tons of reserves, including the TVA-owned coal. Area residents fear the escalation of impacts from the mine, from spreading land subsidence to growing piles of coal waste to being forced to sell their land.

Some also speculate that Foresight will push for more production at Sugar Camp given the idling and likely closure of its Deer Run mine near Hillsboro in Central Illinois. That mine has barely produced for the past three years, since a smoldering fire was detected inside and company and federal officials were not able to find the source or stop the combustion. In a December 2017 filing with the SEC, Foresight said it planned to permanently seal the entrance to Deer Run, abandoning up to $67 million worth of equipment inside.

Deer Run had, like Sugar Camp, wreaked havoc on the lives of local farmers, who saw their fields flooded and crops rotting because of subsidence. Farmers there formed the group Citizens Against Longwall Mining, stressing they supported mining but not the longwall method.

With few other major economic engines in downstate Illinois, many want to see mining continue. But they want companies to go back to room-and-pillar mining, and they want government regulators to keep a closer eye on the operations. For farmers whose land is above coal owned by the TVA, the issue is especially urgent.

Joyce Blumenshine, volunteer chair of the Illinois Sierra Club Chapter Mining Committee, sees the TVA’s leasing of coal to Sugar Camp as “the stealing of coal from the public trust.”

“Those coal acres are supposed to be kept for emergency use, for energy banking for the U.S.,” she said. “Now a private company has those leases for a mine that really could be harming the local area. And now that they’ve handed over this coal, it’s under the purview of the state permitting agency, which is staffed by previous coal industry people.”

Sniderwin thinks the elected officials and government regulators should do more to protect locals from the impacts of Sugar Camp’s mining. He feels his life and farming have already been drastically altered by the mine, and he fears further damage if Sugar Camp starts mining below his land.

“We’re just little people out here doing what we do every day and hoping for the best,” Sniderwin said. “They don’t play by the same rules we do. If I’m just a podunk sitting here in Franklin County and I can see that, why doesn’t someone in power see that and do something?”

This series was produced with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.