“We believe there is a strong case for a significant fine in this case,” said Traci Barkley, a water scientist with the Prairie Rivers Network. “For eight years, this mine sent its pollution into the public waterways with no regard for the impacts they could have on the people of Illinois and our environment.”
The Illinois board said the Industry Mine, located in the west-central part of the state, dumped contaminants, including manganese, into a waterway that feeds into the Illinois River in violation of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit between 2004 and 2011. It faces a $64 million fine, although advocacy groups say regulators have rarely imposed penalties above $100,000.
“This is unfortunately the tip of the iceberg,” Howard Learner, Environmental Law and Policy Center executive director, said in an interview. “What we have seen is an excessive amount of clean water violations. There’s not a real dispute on the facts.”
A Springfield Coal executive told the Peoria Journal Star in 2010 that the Industry Mine was following the rules. “We have been working with the [Illinois EPA] to make sure we’re in compliance with the current permits,” he said.
And the companies argued against environmentalists’ requests for summary judgment in the case. The Pollution Control Board wrote in its opinion summary that “both Springfield Coal and Freeman United rely on supplementary documents, regulations, and doctrines to allege that material facts are disputed in order to negate their liability for the NPDES permit violations.”
However, the document also said, “Considering the pleadings as it must, strictly against ELPC, the Board concludes that there is no genuine issue of material fact with regard to the issue of NPDES permit violations.”
Learner said, “This is a big step for the Illinois Pollution Control Board to finally say enough is enough.” He added, “We believe that the penalty should be set high enough that it sends the right economic signals to the mine operators.”
Groups in other states have announced similar milestones in their quest to secure higher penalties from coal companies. In October, for example, Kentucky environmentalists reached a $575,000 agreement with an Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary after months of negotiations (E&ENews PM, Oct. 5).
And in Pennsylvania, two environmental groups are threatening to sue a major coal company they accuse of hundreds of water pollution violations in the southeastern part of the state, mirroring similar efforts elsewhere in Appalachia (Greenwire, Nov. 12).
“In order to do these cases,” said Learner, “you need an experienced attorney in clean water law. And you need a scientist or someone who can go through the data.”
Learner’s Law and Policy Center said his group has other pending actions and is “prepared to act.” He said, “We are going to be taking this enforcement principle to other mines in Illinois and Indiana and around the Midwest. Any mine owner who is complying with their Clean Water Act permit has nothing to fear.”