MARION -- More than 250 people packed the Diamond Club at Marion's Rent One Park Wednesday evening, most of them looking for an opportunity to speak out against allowing a Williamson County mining company's request to dump wastewater into the Big Muddy River.
Williamson Energy LLC and its parent company, Foresight Energy, filed an application with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for a permit that would allow the Pond Creek Mine to discharge between 2.5 and 3.5 millions gallons of water per day into the Big Muddy River. Pond Creek is about five miles east of Johnston City.
Along with direct dumping into Pond Creek, wastewater would also be channeled via underground pipes about 12.5 miles to the Big Muddy River in Franklin County.
Clayton Cross, director of engineering for Williamson Energy, said the water is seeping into the mine, making conditions unsafe for miners. He said the mine was dry when it first opened, but now is filling with water. As long as they can pump it out, he said, the mine should be viable for another 50 years at the current level of production.
If they aren't allowed to pump it out, they may not be able to operate, he added.
The IEPA made a tentative determination in June to approve the request with the original public comment period closing in August.
However, after a high volume of public interest, the agency scheduled Wednesday's hearing to allow for additional public comment.
Comments will now be accepted through Jan. 17, 2020.
Cross assured the panel that the company will monitor the watery mix being pumped out, to ensure that it is safe and meets EPA standards.
"Over $600 million has been invested into this property," Cross added. "We are responsible for employing 194 miners directly."
Cross said that another 283 outside contractors also depend on the mine to make a living.
He also told the panel that the mine is "one of the safest and most productive in the entire world."
Citizens who followed Cross to the microphone were concerned with the safety to the environment and local citizens if the plan to release the wastewater into the Big Muddy is approved.
Thomas Finkenkeller, of Carbondale, told the panel that complete data should be included in all the reports before the request should be considered for approval.
"I'm distressed," he said. "It must be made clear that it is not just sulfates and chlorides that are important to have complete data on."
Finkenkeller pointed out that many other trace elements are also present in the wastewater. That contention is supported by SIU Associate Professor Liliana Lefticariu.
Although she declined to comment directly on the proposal, Lefticariu, who published a research article on the distribution and mode of occurrence of sulfur and trace elements in Illinois coal, said that wastewater from mining can contain "the whole periodic table," including poisonous elements like zinc, arsenic, lead, and mercury, all of which are toxic.
"If you only look at two elements you miss a lot of metals," she said.
She also stated that the algebraic equations that determine the mix of water to waste can be tricky, especially when the water levels have natural variations.
"Nothing that happens in nature is magic," she said.
Lefticariu compared the mixing to taking a cup of hot coffee and trying to determine how much cold water one would need to add to bring the temperature to a level where it could be comfortably consumed.
She said that even though the elements may be diluted, they don't disappear.
"They form sediments and go to the bottom of the river," she said. "Elements can be remobilized."
Several residents who live on or near the Big Muddy and its tributaries, like Lucia Amorelli, expressed concern about the sediment and its contaminants, especially in light of the more frequent flooding.
Three residents from Franklin and Jackson counties mentioned catching fish from the river with "enlarged livers."
Amorelli told the panel that her research found that Williamson Energy had 45 violations on the outfall of dirty water between 2015 and 2017. This newspaper has not confirmed that information.
Jerry Worthen owns Centennial Farm that he says has been in his family since 1836. His son raises grain in the fields along the Big Muddy, fields that he says now flood almost every year.
"I understand they need coal," he said, "but most of the time it's going overseas to China and Japan."
Not all of those signed up spoke due to time constraints. However, the IEPA hearing officer, Christine Zeival, said that all comments can be submitted online at the IEPA website until Jan. 17.
She said written comments will be given the same weight as oral comments.
A determination on the application will be made after the comments period is closed.