Thursday, November 20, 2014
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Viper Mine rezoning request passes county 10 – 1 – 1

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[November 20, 2014]  LINCOLN - In anticipation of another large crowd related to a request to rezone land, the Logan County Board moved its regular voting session on Thursday night to the Park District. The vote in front of the board members concerned an area of land southeast of Elkhart.

The land is owned by Arch Coal and the Viper Mine, who want to rezone the land from Agriculture to M-3 Extraction. The land would be used to build a new disposal facility to contain refuse from coal that has been brought up from the coal mine near Williamsville.

The vote was postponed in October in order to allow the State’s Attorney, Jonathan Wright, to double check with pieces of state legislation on environmental concerns.

Before the board members discussed the potential rezoning, public comments were heard from guests in attendance.

Tracy Barkley, a water resource scientist from Prairie Rivers Network, spoke to the board members. Barkley said that Prairie Rivers works mostly with policies such as the Clean Water Act and the Sustainable Drinking Water Act and works to see they are upheld.

Barkley said that the title 35 of the Illinois Administrative Code contains an exception for coal mines and surface impoundments when dealing with water supplies. Specifically, the standards for drinking water do not apply when a mine is in operation, and that the standards are lowered during reclamation efforts.

Barkley said that the coal ash has led to contamination at the CWLP disposal site. CWLP (Springfield) purchases coal from the Viper Mine, and there is an agreement in place that the mine takes back coal ash that cannot be disposed of at CWLP.

“Once contamination of the ground water resource takes place, the standard protocols that are often used are for the mine to buy adjacent property and contaminated lands…or apply for a ground water management zone from the state,” said Barkley. Barkley added that if the state granted such a zone, the water would have to be pumped well into the future.

Tyler Roche, another employee of Prairie Rivers, added that coal is becoming less prevalent for generating power in the United States, and CWLP will likely begin reducing the amount of coal they buy in the future.

“Eight of CWLP’s coal-fire units were retired in 2009, and according their consultants, three of the remaining four need to be either retired, upgraded, or switched to natural gas by 2017,” said Roche.

Daniel Hamilton, an attorney with Brown, Hay & Stephens, LLP of Springfield, spoke on behalf of those opposing the rezone. Hamilton repeated statements made at previous meetings, that the application for rezoning is insufficient for justification of the request.

“If this might be unsafe, that’s contrary to the health and well-being of the people of Logan County,” said Hamilton.

Hamilton reiterated that from his perspective, the county board “can’t vote in favor of it. It’s that simple.”

Hamilton said that the only justification that has been provided is that jobs might be lost. “We’ve heard that from engineers. We haven’t heard that corporate directors, we haven’t heard that from a board of directors, we haven’t heard that from anyone within the company that has the authority to so state,” said Hamilton.

James Evan Cook, a resident of Elkhart, told the board members of a coal mine accident that occurred near his family in Wales. Cook said that a coal slurry impoundment suffered a breach in 1966, and more than one hundred people died as a result.

“What’s shocking is that it took until 1997 for compensations to be paid,” said Cook. “I only say this because we need to think very clearly and very long and hard before we make this decision. It’s a big burden to put on future generations if we make the wrong decision.”

Phil Gonet, President of the Illinois Coal Association also addressed the board. Gonet’s comments were being made to support the Viper Mine’s efforts.

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Gonet said that containment ponds are required for mining operations to continue. Gonet said that in 1980 these ponds were built as part of the current facility. “It is my understanding that there was no objection to the present pond when the current property was rezoned back in 1980,” said Gonet.

Gonet reiterated points made at ZBA hearings in October. Gonet said that the coal mine has operated successfully without any leaks or breaches in their ponds for thirty-two years. “Ongoing monitoring prevents ground water contamination,” said Gonet. “Some of the comments heard imply there is no monitoring or protection. There’s nothing further from the truth.”

Gonet also said that there are no alternatives to be found, as an impoundment cannot be built on ground that has been undermined. In addition, Gonet said that 300 jobs would be lost if the mine closes, not including outside contractors that may be hired as necessary.

Garret Barton, the engineering manager of the Viper Mine, said that the mine feels the dialogue between the mine and the public has been beneficial. “Not only in getting an informed vote, but also in helping us open our lines of communication with the community,” said Barton.

“We believe the evidence of the mine’s real impact on the local community, as well as the performance over the last thirty-two years, shows we will continue to operate responsibly and contribute to Logan County,” said Barton.

Barton also asked that the people trust the agencies that oversee their operation to ensure safety for the public and environment. “These are agencies with real expertise who understand the specific requirements for protecting the public and the environment,” said Barton.

“We want to thank the board and the public for their commitment in this process,” said Barton.

After the comments, David Hepler made a motion to amend the requested rezoning. Since the October board meeting, the applicants have altered their application to remove forty acres from the request. These forty acres are not connected to the proposed site for the disposal facility. The forty acres is close to a wildlife habitat, and mine representatives stated at the October board meeting that they would be willing to remove it from their application. The board members voted unanimously to approve of the amendment.

The rezoning, which no longer includes said forty acres, was then voted on by the board. A motion was made to approve the rezoning as amended by Hepler and seconded by Pat O’Neill. The rezoning request was approved by a vote of 10 – 1 - 1. Ten board members voted yes with Scott Schaffenacher voting no, and Gene Rohlfs abstaining from the vote.

Board members present at the meeting were David Hepler, Chuck Ruben, Gene Rohlfs, Robert Farmer, David Blankenship, Pat O’Neill, Andy Anderson, Emily Davenport, Kevin Bateman, Jan Schumacher, Rick Aylesworth and Scott Schaffenacher.

[Derek Hurley]


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