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Illinois attorney general and IDNR announce reforms in coal mine permitting process

Reforms to improve transparency of regulation stem from Banner Mine case settlement

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[April 05, 2014]  SPRINGFIELD Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller have announced major reforms to improve transparency and strengthen regulations in IDNR's Office of Mines and Minerals.

The reforms are the result of a legal settlement regarding a surface coal mining and reclamation permit in Banner Township, Fulton County, that was ultimately denied by the IDNR. The mining operator sought to mine near the village of Banner in central Illinois' Fulton County and would have operated within the Illinois River flood plain.

Local residents raised significant concerns about the mining operation's impact on surrounding natural areas inhabited by endangered or threatened species, the impact on water quality and supply, and residential safety.

Madigan challenged IDNR's initial approval of the permit in 2007. The related reforms are part of a settlement that officially ends legal actions brought by the attorney general.

"These measures reflect years of effort to instill a more transparent process that is responsive to community concerns," Madigan said. "By agreeing to implement these changes, DNR is committing to ensure that anyone who has a stake in mining operations will be heard before a permit application is decided upon."

"The reforms being announced (April 1) are major steps to improve transparency for our permitting decisions and provide stronger environmental protections within our regulatory programs," Miller said. "DNR will continue to enforce mining laws and regulations for which we are responsible, including those that promote workplace safety, and seek public involvement to ensure we are doing our jobs well."

As a result of the settlement, the department will take steps to improve transparency and public participation in the coal permitting process. These reform initiatives and proposed amendments to the department's administrative rules include:

  • Providing earlier public notification The department will require public notification when the mining permit applications are first received, which will provide notice to interested individuals and stakeholders of pending applications well in advance of any public hearing.

  • Requiring more formal environmental reviews earlier in the permitting process  The department will conduct a full consultation with its Division of Ecosystems and Environment to determine the potential impacts to natural areas and endangered species from the mining proposal.

  • This consultation will be initiated earlier in the application process and will be completed before a mining permit application can proceed. Additionally, the department will post the results of the environmental review for the public in advance of a requested hearing on the permit application.

  • Banning pre-hearing conferences  The department will no longer request pre-hearing conferences, a procedural step that has typically created significant delays in the public hearing process. The department will schedule hearings to review a final permit action in a timely fashion.

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  • Requiring mining permit applicants to participate at hearings  The department will require that the permit applicants appear at public hearings and be prepared to answer questions from interested members of the public about the pending application, the proposed mining operation and its impacts, increasing transparency and accountability.

  • Requiring that the department remain neutral during hearings  As part of these reforms, the department's role in the hearings to review mining permit decisions will be focused on providing testimony or evidence to develop a clear and complete record. The department will remain neutral and avoid taking an adversarial position or seeking a case dismissal on technical grounds.

  • Posting all permit materials on the IDNR website  The department will make application materials and hearing transcripts available for free on its website to increase access to information about the mining permit application and the review process and to allow the public more opportunities to provide meaningful comment.

  • Requiring prompt payment of permit fees  The department will require permit fees to be paid at the time a permit application is submitted, as required by law, rather than when the application is approved. This will fulfill the goal of the law and create more stable funding for the department's permit review procedures.

  • Ensuring accountability  The department director will make the ultimate permit decision.

These reforms continue the effort to rebuild and renew the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, a process that the administration of Gov. Pat Quinn began with the appointment of Miller as IDNR director in 2009.

[Text from Illinois Department of Natural Resources file received from the Illinois Office of Communication and Information]

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