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On Wednesday, residents of Saline County in southern Illinois presented the Illinois Environmental Agency and the state’s attorney general with a 5,000 signature petition in an attempt to put the brakes on coal-mining in their community. They say the mine — Peabody’s Cottage Grove Strip Mine — is polluting the air and water and want these claims to be investigated. They are also calling for a probe into the Illinois Department of Natural Resources issuing of permits.
As reported by Al Jazeera America, coal mining has increased by seventy percent in Illinois over the past five years, despite the state’s other promising moves towards cleaner energy. Much of the new coal mining is in southern Illinois.
The petition follows the latest coal mining controversy in the state in the small farming community of Rocky Branch. Peabody Energy is in the process of extending the Cottage Grove mine into this community — within 300 feet of homes.
The proposed 1,019-acre Rocky Branch surface mine is south of Peabody’s Cottage Grove strip mine near Southeastern Illinois College.
Heeding residents of Cottage Grove who, according to reporter Jeff Biggers, have long complained of blasting that is like “small earthquakes”, clouds of toxic coal dust and polluted waterways, Rocky Branch residents have fiercely opposed the new coal mine.
In January, Peabody started clear-cutting the Rocky Branch site, but was ordered by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to stop because mining permits — needed to even prepare the site — were still pending.
Last week, according to Biggers, reporting for the Huffington Post, the loggers returned, moving their clear-cutting equipment onto the proposed mining site in the dead of night. State environmental permits which were still in the public comment period were hastily issued by IDNR on March 12 after logging had already begun.
The day after the permits were issued, a dozen protesters set up a road blockade to stop additional logging equipment from entering the work site.
The Shawnee hills, which are being logged to make way for the strip-mine, provide habitat for endangered Indiana bats. According to the protesters, the company still hasn’t obtained two necessary water permits for the mine.
At an Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hearing on water quality permits for the expansion of the Peabody strip mine in Rocky Branch in February, local residents protesting the mine vastly outnumbered all attendees.
“We the people of Rocky Branch,” said Jennifer Dumberis, at the hearing, according to Biggers. “We will decide what happens to us and our civil rights — not Peabody.”
The coal from the new mine will help feed Peabody’s embattled Prairie State coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois.
As the Chicago Tribune reported in September, back in 2007, 217 municipalities and 17 electric membership cooperatives across the Midwest, committed themselves to 28-year contracts to purchase power from the plant which began operating in 2012.
Unfortunately, skyrocketing construction costs, lower natural gas prices, and other factors have eroded the “deal” communities thought they were signing up for seven years ago. Mechanical problems at the $5 billion coal plant over the last 18 months have cut into output, forcing municipal electricity agencies to buy energy on the open market while still making payments on construction debt. Communities once hoping to save a bit each month are now facing years of spiking utility bills.
Officials in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, plan to increase residential electricity rates annually by 6 to 7 percent for the next two years. Another suburb — Batavia — may need to raise electricity rates as much as 16 percent.
The Prairie State power plant is currently part of a federal investigation into fraud allegations.
“Every time we asked questions when they were thinking about signing up, we were told the city’s responsibility was to deliver reliable energy at the lowest cost possible,” Batavia resident Linda Sommer told the Chicago Tribune.
“Look how that turned out. We’re stuck with a power plant that is unreliable and outrageously expensive.”
This post has been updated to reflect new developments and the source of the original reporting in Huffington Post and Al Jazeera America