Keith Rohl remembers the day he was asked to lease the coal rights to his farmland in Homer, Ill.
It was 2009, a wet year for the crops, when he was lined up at the grain elevator with his neighbors hearing about the proposed Bulldog Mine for the first time.
“The neighbors were all talking about, ‘You sell your coal rights, and you get to farm your land on top. You’re going to have all kinds of money and everything.’ And I thought ‘Boy, that sounds great to me, and I was ready to sign up,’ ” he said.
But the more Rohl talked with the company who planned to establish the mine, Sunrise Coal LLC, the less he understood about what the mine would mean long term for his community.
He said that he and his wife “changed our minds real quick that this isn’t something that we want.”
Since 2009, Sunrise Coal has purchased 400 acres for service facilities and leased 19,500 acres for mining on land just south of Homer, only a few miles down the road from Rohl’s land, according to Sunrise Coal's own website.
Rohl fears the mine could potentially hurt the productivity of his crops because the mining could cause his land to sink, damage his field drainage tiles and create air pollution. Other opponents are concerned about possible damage to waterways and roadways, while supporters say the mine will provide jobs and boost the economy.
Suzanne Jaworowski, Sunrise Coal spokeswoman, recently wrote in an email that the company's modifications to their original permit will address those concerns. The company is still waiting on two permits from the state before it can open Bulldog Mine.
“Before we can issue a mining permit, all of the issues we have authority over, we will require them to be addressed and meet the requirements of our regulations,” said Dean Spindler, geologist at the department’s office of mines and minerals.
Sunrise Coal, based in Terre Haute Indiana and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hallodor Energy Company, owns nine mine facilities along the Illinois Basin, a bituminous coal-producing region comprising most of Illinois and parts of Indiana and Kentucky.
According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the mines are Ace in the Hole Mine, Carlisle Mine, Carlisle Preparation Plant, Oakton I, Oakton II,, Oaktown Fuels Preparation Plant, Russellville Mine, Prosperity Mine and the proposed Bulldog Mine. Prosperity Mine is now a non-producing mine, according to federal records.
Farmers raise environmental concerns
Sunrise Coal started the formal permit process to construct the Bulldog Mine in 2012, but is still waiting on a water discharge permit from the state Environmental Protection Agency and a mining permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources before the mine can open.
Kim Biggs, EPA spokeswoman, said in late 2015 that the agency is still responding to notes sent in during the public comment period, which ended Sept. 11, and does not know when a decision will be reached.
Meanwhile, the natural resources department responded to Sunrise Coal's permit request in March 2015 with 62 questions and concerns requiring modification to its permit, which are due in March 2016.
After turning down the Sunrise offer, Rohl and his wife Brenda, joined a group of local farmers and landowners in a grassroots group called Stand Up To Coal to advocate against the proposed Bulldog Mine.
Many of the modifications required by government officials mirror the concerns of members of Stand Up To Coal, particularly regarding the applicant’s lack of information regarding the presence of natural springs such as the Olive Branch.
The original permit stated the mine would use local field drainage tiles for mine discharge, which empties in the Olive Branch about a mile from the mine site. Opponents are concerned because the stream flows into the Salt Fork River, the main drinking supply for the village of Oakwood.
“The Olive Branch, a lot of people just call it a ditch, but clearly down here it is not a ditch it’s a nice, beautiful, thriving stream,” said Jonathan Ashbrook, another member of Stand Up to Coal, whose family has held land along the seasonal creek for the past 140 years. “When we heard the mine wanted to potentially use the Olive Branch for their discharge that sort of fired us up.”
An internal Illinois Environmental Protection Agency memo from September stated: “A significant potential exists for storm water mixed with mine process wastewater to migrate from the field tile drainage system into the adjacent soils and impact groundwater.”
The state EPA also recommended an alternative location for discharge.
Stand Up To Coal is also concerned with contaminated air, withdrawal of large amounts of local groundwater and the destruction of roads by trucks hauling the coal out of the mine. Jaworowski says the IDNR and the IEPA will address these concerns.
Prairie Rivers Network, an environmental not-for-profit based in Champaign, has been an educational and support network for local farmers advocating against the mine. It cites concerns of pollution of streams from mine runoff water, the use and potential damage of field drain tiles and the creation of slurry impoundments containing toxic chemicals from washed coal.
“This is really no place for a coal mine,” said Tyler Rotche, water policy specialist at Prairie Rivers Network. “This is some of the best farmland in the country, and when you are talking about all of these farmers here and the risk that could happen to their yields for a one time extraction of coal that would provide not nearly as many jobs, ... it’s a gamble.”
The economics of Bulldog Mine
But some local residents see the mine as a potential boost to Vermilion County’s depressed economy.
In July 2015, the Sunset Coal laid off 175 miners at its Carlisle and Oaktown mines, located just two hours southeast of the county in Indiana, but according to the company’s website, Bulldog Mine would bring in 300 local jobs for coal miners.
Vermilion County Board member Chuck Nesbitt, district 3, and head of equipment maintenance at Wayne Transports in Danville, has testified in support of the mine at state agency hearings, saying the economy needs the jobs.
“To be able to get the 300 jobs plus the spin off jobs that will be coming to support the mine, that’s going to be a big deal,” he said.
The company’s initial permit shows that dozens of landowners and farmers have already leased their coal rights to Sunrise Coal
Calls made to many of these landowners were not returned and several individuals declined to comment out of fear of retaliation from those opposed to the mine. But for Joe Ford, a farmer from Sidell who leased his rights sometime between 2009 and 2010, the reason he signed up is simple.
“It’s economical,” he said. “The coal is going to be sold, and we’re going to receive the money.”
So far, he has received an initial “startup” sum of money from Sunrise Coal. Ford said he doesn’t have any concerns about the mine because he believes coal mining is one of the most regulated industries in the country.
But farmers such as Brenda Rohl argue that the mine could take away more jobs that it says it will bring in if farmland is damaged.
“There are people whose jobs are out here already. It's just because you don’t see them out standing in the ground,” she said. “I mean we should call all of our salesmen and get them to come and their families and take a picture to show how many people that piece of ground employs because its hundreds of people and hundreds of families.”
“What happens when they’re gone?”
Keith Rohl isn’t so worried about what the mine will do in the next few years. He figures there will be some issues, but his biggest concern is what the land will look like when the coal runs out and the miners pack up.
“I think [the next generation] is going to be the ones to deal with it. [If I signed up,] my son will be like, ‘Why did dad do that?’ ” he said, noting his son will be the fifth generation to farm their land.
A big worry for farmers, Rohl said, is subsidence — or the gradual sinking of land that can be caused by underground mining over long periods of time. Even a few inches of ground movement could disrupt the flow of water in field drain tiles, which could hold pockets of water in certain areas and drown the crops, he said.
Vermilion County has a long history of coal mining, Spindler said, and he isn’t aware of any subsidence issues in the county from modern mines active after 1980s.
Nesbitt says his family has never worried about whether the mines would disrupt their crops.
“[My family has] farmed that ground consistently for 150 years with no ill effects of an underground coal mine,” he said, adding that Nesbitt’s family farms have stood over five mines, including the Bunsen Mine, Riola Mine, Vermilion Grove Mine and two Peabody Mines.
Another concern is how the land will be reclaimed and returned to its original state after coal is extracted. Spindler says laws for mining reclamation have modernized drastically over the past 100 years.
Currently, in the case that mining companies do not reclaim their mines once they close, companies like Sunrise Coal must pay an upfront sum equal to what it would cost to reclaim the mine when it receives the permit.
“If they were not to do the work, they would forfeit that money and we would hire a contractor to complete the reclamation,” Spindler said.
For Keith and Brenda Rohl there are still so many unanswered questions regarding how the proposed coal mine will affect the community. But they said one thing is certain: It won’t change how they feel about their neighbors who support the mine.
“We don’t want to divide the community and it appears that that’s what Sunrise [Coal] would like to see: divide and conquer. And we’re not going to let that happen,” Brenda Rohl said.
Locations of mines owned by Sunrise Coal, LLC
Click on mine site to get more information about that mine.
This story was produced by CU-CitizenAccess.org, a community online news and information project based at the University of Illinois and devoted to investigative and enterprise coverage of social, justice and economic issues in east central Illinois.