Protecting Clean Water from Coal Pollution in Illinois
Coal mining in Illinois pollutes water and damages our farmland, forests and natural watercourses. Impacts do not end with the land and water; our rural heritage is also being destroyed as increasingly destructive mining techniques are used to extract coal at any cost.
In addition, Illinois has over 100 coal ash ponds and mine-fills that leach toxic chemicals to groundwater, lakes and rivers, where pollution can spread, polluting drinking water supplies and threatening fish and wildlife. Coal ash ponds are also prone to collapse, as happened near Kingston, Tennessee in 2008 when over 1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry spilled into the Clinch and Emory Rivers. Even the “cleanest” coal-burning electricity generates waste that can pose a threat to our drinking water. The state’s regulatory agencies have not held the coal industry accountable to the same standards as they do other industrial polluters, and the byzantine regulatory process precludes meaningful involvement by local residents.
Prairie Rivers Network has been increasingly engaged in the fight to stop coal pollution over the past 10 years, gaining initial victories and laying the groundwork to keep Illinois’ water resources safe and healthy. We are currently focused on:
Protecting Clean Water in Illinois from Coal Mining
As coal reserves dwindle in Appalachia and overseas demand for coal is surging, Illinois Coal Basin communities are faced with a surge of new coal mining. Unfortunately, today’s coal mines use bigger machines to dig more coal while employing fewer people than ever – and the consequences for Illinois‘ land and water are mounting.
Strip mining destroys thousands of acres of farmland, forests and streams as coal companies blast and dig through solid rock to reach coal. Unfortunately, mining companies in Illinois are usually granted permission by regulatory agencies to mine through streams and wetlands – this loss threatens water quality downstream.
Coal mines in Illinois still rely on outdated pollution control technologies, if any, that do not remove the harmful pollution in mine wastewater and site runoff before it is discharged into rivers, streams and lakes. Most mines in Illinois process coal onsite, which generates millions of gallons of coal slurry, a mixture of water, coal, waste rock and chemicals, including harmful salts and metals. When runoff from slurry pits and “reclaimed” mine sites is discharged, it often contains elevated levels of sediments, salts and metals, threatening clean drinking water as well as the health of hunters and anglers that rely on healthy wildlife.
Prairie Rivers Network fights to strengthen or oppose permits that threaten clean water in Illinois. We also provide technical and organizing assistance to local communities to help them protect their clean water supply from coal pollution. (Learn More).
Fighting to Keep Clean Water in Illinois Safe from Coal Ash Pollution
Behind Illinois’ coal-fired power plants lies a dirty secret: coal ash, the solid byproduct that is left over after coal is burned for electricity. Coal ash is full of heavy metals like mercury, arsenic, selenium, chromium and cadmium, which can cause cancer and brain damage in humans and are harmful to fish and wildlife.
Shockingly, there are fewer safeguards on coal ash disposal than household garbage. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that with coal-fired power plants and industries in Illinois generating 4.4 million tons of coal ash each year in addition to coal ash imports from at least 6 other states, Illinois leads the nation in coal ash damage cases. Since 2009, Illinois EPA has found groundwater contamination from coal ash pollution at every site investigated – that’s 22 out of 24 coal-fired power plants!
For these reasons, we are working to empower local residents to let decision makers know that Illinois communities support commonsense, federally enforceable safeguards to protect our land and water from coal ash pollution.
We are also working to stop coal ash pollution in individual communities by appealing permits, and forcing power plants to comply with the law and protect clean water by phasing out dangerous coal ash ponds and requiring coal companies to switch to safer coal ash disposal methods.
Exposing the True Cost of Coal
The numbers behind coal’s impact on the health of Illinois’ lands, waters and people are sobering:
Nearly 1,000 miles of the 21.8% of streams assessed by the Illinois EPA are considered impaired for either public drinking water supply or aquatic life due to impacts from mining activities.
In Illinois alone, emissions from coal-fired power plants are responsible for 621 premature deaths and 1,018 heart attacks annually (Clean Air Task Force).
At each Illinois coal-fired power plant investigated (22 of 24), groundwater contamination has been found due to coal ash disposal.
In the last 40 years over 36,000 acres have been subsided by longwall mining, and 3 of the largest new mines opening in the state are longwall mines that will destroy thousands of acres each year.
In spite of coal’s devastating impacts on Illinois communities, our state continues to subsidize polluting coal mines and power plants with millions of dollars in grants and tax benefits. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity even operates a Coal Education and Marketing Campaign that includes a taxpayer funded coal curriculum and teacher education program written by coal industry interests. Please join our effort and let Governor Quinn know you support telling our kids the truth about coal by signing our pettion.
Building a Grassroots Movement
Because we know it takes a network to save a river and even more to protect clean air, land and communities, Prairie Rivers Network has led the formation of the Heartland Coalfield Alliance, a collaborative movement that brings together advocacy and community groups in order to fight for a just transition from a coal economy to a sustainable, clean-energy economy in the Illinois Coal Basin. We also work on the ground in coalfield communities with groups like these to help protect clean water from coal pollution:
- Traci Barkley, permit review, technical assistance, regional “beyond coal” organizing tbarkley @ prairierivers.org
- Brian Perbix, grassroots organizer bperbix @ prairierivers.org
(1) Toolkit for Developing and Managing Partnerships in Coal-Impacted Watersheds
(2) Illinois Coal Country Teams Volunteer Handbook for Monitoring Mine-Impacted Streams
Please support our coal work with your membership.