Monday, October 06, 2014
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Elkhart residents ask mine representatives about safety measurements and reason for new fly ash location

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[October 06, 2014]  LINCOLN - The gymnasium of the old Elkhart grade school was packed with people on Thursday night. Most were residents of the village of Elkhart present for a public hearing conducted by the Logan County Zoning Board of Appeals. The reason for the hearing concerns a plot of land outside of the village that is owned by the Viper Mine. The mining company would like to rezone the land from Agriculture District and Special District to M-3 Extraction District.

The land would be developed for a new fly ash disposal facility. The property is located one mile southeast of Elkhart, adjacent and north of the current processing and impoundment. The meeting began at 7:30 p.m. and lasted over two hours.

The Viper Mine opened in 1982. The mine currently operates in Williamsville. It's underground mining in Sangamon County began about 2009, though it was bringing coal up in Logan County before that and could come back into Logan County in the not to distant future as access to veins are opened.

The mine employs over 300 employees and 10 contractors. The current impoundment was built in 1983, and, according to the mine representatives, is reaching the filling point.

Currently, the mining company is working simultaneously on getting all of the various permits and plans approved that are needed for such a project. They need to have the new impoundment operational and ready to receive by 2017.

Kayla Primm, who has worked at the mine for 32 years, gave a presentation on what they are looking to build to everyone at the meeting. Primm oversees environmental operations at the mine.

Primm reiterated several times over the course of the hearing that IDNR and the EPA both receive monthly reports from the mine as they monitor thirty-one nearby water sources, including the water supply for Elkhart. “In fact, IDNR asked if they could bring some of their regional directors to our mine to show them how ash is handled. They were extremely impressed and could not say enough good things about our operation,” said Primm.

Primm gave a brief explanation on what happens to fly ash as it is disposed of. The ash is prevented from filling the air with the help of industrial fans that push it into the impoundment. The ash is then conditioned and mixed with fluids and other waste materials until it becomes thicker and cannot blow around.

Primm said the proposed construction would include new areas for topsoil stockpiles and two sediment ponds. The plans were designed by a company called D’Appolonia, an engineering company known worldwide.

ZBA Chairman Doug Thompson asked about the capacity of the sediment ponds.

Bob Snow, who also represented the mine, said the ponds would be built to withstand storms up to a potential 100-year storm. In the event of greater rains, the water would run off into additional storage drains. If the rain was heavy enough, the water could run into nearby tributaries.

On the topic of storms and natural disasters, Snow said that the facility would be held to the same high standards regarding tornadoes or earthquakes and preparation for such events.

Paul Lee of the AIPG (or the American Institute of Professional Geologists) repeatedly asked how the company plans on controlling the quality of water that leaves the site. Snow reiterated that any water stored in the ponds would be monitored, and that the worst run-off in terms of quality occurs with smaller storms, not larger ones.

“When you’re talking about larger run-off events, the sheer volume [of water] tends to result in reducing the constituents,” said Snow. “If we can retain the run-off from smaller events and recover that water, then we can control the water coming off of the site.”

Primm added that the company routinely performs their own tests on the water quality of their sites outside of the regulatory groups. Primm said that any water in their facilities has to meet Class 1 drinking water standards.

“I have drank that water,” said Primm.

According to the representatives at the hearing, underneath the proposed storage unit would be a liner composed of heavy duty plastic materials that would prevent any seepage that may occur. In addition, there would also be a layer of man-made clay under the liner and a series of drains that would lead to the sediment ponds. All of the ponds and ditches would also be lined this way, and everything would be monitored constantly. Any water used would be recycled and reused by the company.

With the construction of a new facility, the current one would be reclaimed, meaning that the mine would oversee the planting of grasses and shrubs over the top of everything after the impoundment is compacted and drained. In addition, the new facility would be reclaimed as it is being used, rather than waiting until it is used up.

Primm reiterated several times that everything would be run according to the regulations of several government organizations at both the state and federal levels. “Everything in mining is highly regulated,” said Primm. Snow added that the mine follows an equally strict series of regulations concerning air pollution and particulates.

Primm said that the hope is that the new facility would last for the remainder of the life of the mine. Bob Snow, who also works at the mine, said that the facility should hold twenty years’ worth of production materials.

Several citizens in attendance asked how long monitoring will continue after the mine shuts down. Snow said that they are required to monitor water for five years after the mine is closed, and that time can be extended if they are found deficient. Primm said that there are financial bonds kept in place for future repairs and maintenance after the mine might close.

Erwin Sass, a manager at the mine, said that they have not looked very much into alternatives yet, although they have considered looking east instead of north. “We own the land. We have been there since ’82 and we have never had any problems with the south impoundment,” said Sass.

One citizen said she has made complaints several times over the years concerning dust and ash in the air, and nobody has addressed those complaints or tested her water. She also asked how far the fly ash would travel if the holding area was breached.

Primm answered, saying the company has compiled data on such a potential event. The data also includes names and addresses of who could be in the path. Primm said she would be glad to provide information on those locations in the future, as she did not have the paperwork on hand. When asked if the people on the list had been informed previously, Primm said they had not.

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Daniel Hamilton, an attorney with Brown, Hay & Stephens, LLP of Springfield, asked if the company has looked at alternatives. Primm answered, saying that this plan would be the most preferred and efficient manner of storing the fly ash and continuing mine operations. “If this plan is not approved, we will explore other options,” said Primm.

Hamilton asked multiple times what the other options would be. Primm said that no other options had been outlined completely.

Hamilton also asked several questions as to why the facility needs to be built, what its capacity would be, and why this location was chosen. “This raises too many questions,” said Hamilton.

Sass answered, saying the company already owns the land, and that other locations would result in an increased effect on highway traffic, and the current disposal unit will be approaching full capacity in 2017.

Hamilton asked what would go into the facility.

Primm said ash would be mixed with clay, limestone, and shale. “Up to twenty-five percent of it could be fly ash,” said Primm. Primm said that some of the fly ash is returned by some of their customers, as per their contracts.

Hamilton asked if she could list any sources, which Primm declined due to confidentiality.

Before taking his seat, Hamilton said that the application itself is deficient, and there is too much information left off of the application. “You haven’t met the criteria yet. That’s what we’re looking for tonight,” said Hamilton.

Primm asked the ZBA members what else they needed to know, and the ZBA members present did not indicate anything either way.

“We want to see everything that has been said in writing, as per the zoning regulations,” said Hamilton.

While they test for thirty-one potentially toxic constituents, Primm said that there are currently no toxins present in the area that would normally raise alarms anyway. Primm added that sixteen of those compounds are routinely too low to even be detected, and the mine looks for the same toxins in the fly ash. If toxins are detected in the future, the mine will take steps to correct any problems, but so far the mine has not found said toxins to be present.

Multiple people asked about the potential loss of jobs if the mine cannot open a new disposal area. One person (who did not give a name) asked if Primm knew how many people from Elkhart worked at the mine.

Primm said she was not sure how many people working at the mine live in Elkhart specifically, but she does know that 49 people living in Logan County work at the mine. Primm also said that if the land is not rezoned and an alternative area cannot be found, those people could potentially lose their jobs.

“We at Viper are proud of our long-standing partnership with the community. We truly are,” said Primm.

Multiple people, including Rick Sheley of the ZBA, asked why the fly ash is coming back to Logan County, especially when the coal mine itself is located in Williamsville.

The representatives from the coal mine said that for some of their customers, it makes more sense economically for the fly ash to come to Logan County. In addition, some of the coal mined does come from Logan County, even though it is brought out of the ground in Sangamon County.

Primm said that the alternative for fly ash is for it to be dumped in a landfill.

On the topic of from which county is the coal is mined, many of the audience members said that Sangamon County is receiving sales tax money for the coal that is mined, even though the fly ash would be dumped in Logan County.

Primm responded, saying that due to government programs, many of their customers do not have to pay sales tax, and any amount that is paid is extremely low.

“It’s not anywhere near where it used to be,” said Primm.

Multiple employees of the mine also spoke up at the hearing. “Arch Coal is by far the safest and most environmentally friendly place anyone could work for,” said one employee and Elkhart resident. Another audience member who has family working at the mine said that nobody at the mine has ever called in sick due to working around the fly ash.

Before the hearing ended, Peggy Lee, a member of the Elkhart Village Council, thanked everyone for their participation in this process. “This isn’t just an Elkhart problem, but a Logan County problem,” said Lee. “We have to think about our environment and what might happen to it.”

Sass said he appreciates the concern the community has shown by coming forward with their questions. Sass also said he hopes to see communication improve between the village and the company. “I know we can work together on this and come to terms on this issue,” said Sass.

As the hearing drew to a close, the ZBA members announced that there would be a second hearing on the 9th at the same time and place. No decision has been made yet on the ZBA’s part on whether or not to recommend the rezone. The County Board will ultimately make the decision on the land’s designation.

Members of the ZBA present were Doug Thompson, chairman; Rick Sheley, and Judy Graff. The other members of the ZBA decided to abstain from this specific matter for personal reasons. Logan County's zoning officer, Will D'Andrea, was also present.

[Derek Hurley]

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