The Sugar Camp mine's plant.
The Sugar Camp mine's plant. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Environmental groups have sent a letter noting their intent to sue over releases of toxic PFAs as part of a firefighting effort at the troubled Sugar Camp mine in downstate Illinois. The move is meant to trigger action from state or federal agencies or otherwise hold the mine owners accountable for the latest in a long string of violations at Illinois’ largest mine.

Starting in mid-August, 46,000 gallons of firefighting foam was pumped into the mine to suppress a smoldering underground fire. Soon, local residents saw foam on fields and floating on the surface of a nearby stream that feeds into Akin Creek, which empties into the Middle Fork Big Muddy River, a popular recreation spot.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency conducted water tests that found PFAs — “forever chemicals” known to cause cancer, organ damage and fertility problems — in at least four sites at concentrations higher than EPA health advisory levels, Illinois drinking water health advisory levels, or Illinois draft groundwater standards.

Advocates note that residents draw water from private wells throughout the area, so they are demanding testing of wells and groundwater to determine any risks.

The Oct. 29 letter notes that the Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network will file a lawsuit against the mine owners if action is not taken within 60 days to stop any ongoing contamination and remediate the damage. The letter notes that the water contamination and PFA releases could constitute violations of the Clean Water Act, Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, all federal laws that are often enforced through such citizen lawsuits.

Sarah Rubinstein, staff attorney with the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center, which is representing the environmental groups, said they expect the state EPA and Illinois attorney general to take action within the 60-day period noted in the letter.

The environmental groups sent their letter to Sugar Camp LLC — a subsidiary of Foresight Energy that has long co-owned the mine — and American Consolidated Natural Resources. Foresight Energy and its parent company, Murray Energy, got approval for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last year, and as part of the process, American Consolidated Natural Resources was formed by former creditors and took control of many Murray Energy assets. Foresight and Murray Energy president and CEO Robert Moore is also president and CEO of American Consolidated. The company is now the largest privately-owned coal company in the country.

Demanding accountability

It’s unclear whether the chemicals leached from the underground mine or traveled by wind or in surface run-off from foam stored or prepared before being pumped into the mine. The mine operators drilled six boreholes in order to disperse the foam, and mixed the foam in two earthen pits, according to the environmental groups’ letter based on documents obtained through a public records request.

In early September, Akin Water District officials and residents documented foam sightings on the creek surface and in farm drainage ditches and fields.

“We’re not sure if they were messy in mixing it and it ran over the land into the creek, or if it was through these boreholes that we know they drilled into the mine, that are connected hydro-geologically to the surface water,” said Rubinstein of the PFA contamination. “In any event, it definitely was present in all the surface water sampling that IEPA did adjacent to those locations and even a little bit farther downstream.”

In addition to the PFAs, the foam discharges caused “floating debris, and visible oil, color and turbidity of other than natural origin” in the stream, according to the notice of intent.   

The Illinois EPA issued a notice of violation regarding the PFAs on Sept. 21, but according to the groups’ letter, “Sugar Camp Energy has to date undertaken no action to remediate the environmental and health damage caused by the ongoing PFAS discharge to the unnamed tributary to Akin Creek and environment surrounding the Mine.”

The notice says the groups will seek “all available injunctive relief, future costs, damages and attorneys’ fees.” Rubinstein said that in the near term, the groups are demanding the mine owners stop any continuing spread of PFAs, and do testing to see if any wells could be impacted.

“Our concern is containing what is there, stopping it from continuing to discharge into the surface water, remedying what is in the surface water, and any nearby sources of drinking water that could have been impacted,” she said. “They should be offering to do sampling and providing drinking water sources to people whose wells might have been impacted.”

The Illinois EPA’s notice of violation lists the different brands of firefighting foam products used by the company, and notes that at least two of them — named Thunder Storm and Crestar Class A/B Foam, contain PFAs.

A troubled history, a call for change

A July 2020 filing in federal bankruptcy court notes 10 times in 2018 to 2020 that the mine’s wastewater was released into ditches and streams in the same area as the PFA contamination, often because of pipe ruptures, in violation of laws and Sugar Camp’s permits.

The filing said that “such violations are ongoing, including due to Sugar Camp Energy’s failure to investigate and repair its pipeline and its continued threat of discharges of contaminants into the environment in violation of the Environmental Protection Act.” The filing, by the Illinois Attorney General, was asking the court to allow the fines Sugar Camp owed for the violations to be paid as part of bankruptcy proceedings that allowed Murray Energy to avoid $8 billion worth of debt and liability.

Sugar Camp, one of the largest mines in the country, has previously logged hundreds of environmental violations, including “black water” and coal slurry 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; and damage to unmitigated wetlands. 

The Foresight Energy subsidiaries that have run Sugar Camp have also sought to claim local farmers’ land against their will by leveraging old deeds and agreements, and the mine has been the site of the most coal-mining fatalities in the state this millennium, with federal investigations citing faulty equipment and poor training by the mine company.

Environmental leaders are framing the PFA violations as another example of the toll taken on Illinois by fossil fuel industries, and a symbol of the urgency of switching to a clean energy economy, not only in the state’s electricity generation and vehicle sectors but also by addressing coal mining. The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act passed in September includes just transition and job training components aimed at communities where coal mines close or reduce operations.

“Illinois has just picked this bold new decarbonization direction for its electric generation, so this continued extraction of fossil fuels is increasingly out of step with where we’re going as a state,” said Illinois Sierra Club director Jack Darin, who noted that electric vehicle-related manufacturing operations incentivized by another recent new Illinois law could locate in former coal mining areas.

“It’s time we think long-term about the future,” Darin continued. “There are all kinds of harms that come from mining that rural Illinois has been experiencing for a long time. This is a particularly flagrant violation because of the chemicals involved, but what’s not new is the approach of these companies who view this land and these communities as there for taking to do whatever they want with. Those days just need to be numbered.”

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.