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January 30, 2014

Sierra Club, Local Residents Stop Illegal Logging for Peabody Coal Mine

Rocky-Branch-hearingPhoto by Carrie Otto, courtesy of Prairie Rivers Network.

Working with Illinois-based Prairie Rivers Network and local citizens' group Justice for Rocky Branch, the Sierra Club has successfully stopped Peabody Energy, the world's largest private-sector coal company, from illegally logging 200 acres of hardwood forests at its proposed Rocky Branch coal mine in Saline County in southern Illinois.

Above, local residents at an Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) public hearing in December. Only one person, a Peabody representative, spoke in favor of the mine.

The Rocky Branch mine would destroy productive farmland, leave a 1,000-acre pit, and destroy nearly eight miles of streams and roughly 200 acres of forests that provide habitat for the at-risk Indiana bat and other wildlife. Citizens and environmental groups have previously raised concerns about the proposed mine, including impacts to waterways, disturbances and damage from blasting, airborne dust, and the destruction of farmland and wildlife habitat.


So how did the residents of Saline County stand up to Peabody and their own state?

Residents living near Rocky Branch became alarmed when logging equipment began appearing at the site in late December, even though no mining permit had been issued. The IDNR initially refused to do anything. Acknowledging that Peabody couldn't conduct the logging without a permit, IDNR claimed that it had no obligation to act because one Peabody subsidiary contracted for logging, but a different Peabody subsidiary had applied to mine the same site.

Below, forest near Rocky Branch that was threatened by illegal logging.


After logging began, the Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network, and Justice for Rocky Branch alerted IDNR, including photos of the logging and even providing corporate records that connected the dots between the Peabody subsidiary that contracted for the logging, the mine permit applicant (Peabody Arclar Mining, LLC), and Peabody, the parent company for both subsidiaries. IDNR, however, still refused to take action.

IDNR staff said that they didn't consider the logging to be conducted "in connection with" mining-even though it was the same property, the same company, and logging and land clearing were listed as activities in the surface mining permit application. The state, apparently, was willing to let a Peabody subsidiary do what Peabody could not -- an absurd result that circumvented the law and represented the epitome of bad public policy. 

At that point, the Club and its allies went over IDNR's head and filed a "citizen complaint" demanding that the federal Office of Surface Mining step in. To its credit, OSM took the Sierra Club's complaint seriously and provided an efficient, responsible solution. Instead of allowing corporate profits to trump the concerns of regular citizens, on January 13, 2014 OSM required the state to put an immediate stop to logging at Rocky Branch.

"I'm glad to see the state finally do the right thing here," said Sierra Club member and Justice for Rocky Branch activist Donald Karns, below with his wife Rita at the December 11 public hearing. "I'm trying to save my farm and the surrounding wildlife habitat and make sure all the necessary steps are taken to protect our land before the damage is done."


In this case, the attempt to clear cut 200 acres of hardwoods before receiving a mining permit was particularly egregious because the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service had indicated it would not allow logging at the site from March through October in order to protect spring and summer nesting habitat for the federally endangered Indiana bat.

Terri-Treacy"We're grateful for local citizens who were watching out for these woods, and to the Office of Surface Mining for stepping in to stop this illegal logging," said Terri Treacy, at left, an organizer with the Sierra Club's Illinois Chapter. "Big Coal is taking aim at Illinois' forests, farms, and streams in the rush to dig up this dirty fuel and make a quick buck by destroying our natural heritage. We need Governor [Pat] Quinn and the state Department of Natural Resources to step up and protect our land and water from major coal companies and polluters."

What does this mean for other residents in Illinois Basin coalfields?

Strip mines throughout the Illinois Basin are logged and cleared before mining companies can access the coal seams beneath the ground, but state and federal mining laws require companies to obtain a mining permit before logging can begin. This is supposed to ensure that adequate protections are in place to prevent polluted runoff from damaging nearby homes and polluting creeks, rivers, and streams. The law also requires that adequate studies be conducted to ensure that no threatened or endangered species will be affected. Those steps were not taken at Rocky Branch, and it was left to the citizens of Saline County to stand up to Peabody and state officials.

"These protections are put in place to give citizens a voice in the process," said Traci Barkley, a water resources scientist with Prairie Rivers Network. "In this instance, that voice was heard. While we're disappointed the state didn't take our concerns seriously, we're very pleased with OSM's quick work to protect the farms and creeks in Saline County."

Below, a tributary of Rocky Branch that would be damaged by the Rocky Branch mine.


The good news for people that live in Saline County and other communities in the Illinois Basin is that the legal principles used here are relatively straight forward. The Surface Mining Control & Reclamation Act precludes any "surface mining operations" until the company has a surface mining permit, (12 U.S.C. 1256(a)) and defines "surface mining operations" to include "activities conducted on the surface of lands in connection with a surface coal mine." 12 U.S.C.  1291(28)(A). 

The people of Saline County successfully stood up to one of the largest coal mining companies in the country and an intransigent state agency that refused to take them seriously. They looked at what was happening in their community, they looked at the law, and they took action. And then they won. 

For the time being, the January 13 decision ensures that the forests near Rocky Branch -- and the wildlife habitat and clean-water protection they provide -- will remain standing. 

There is a public hearing on the two proposed water permits for the mine on February 18 in Harrisburg, Illinois, where the people of Saline County will once again have their voice heard.

Nathaniel Shoaff is a staff attorney with the Sierra Club.

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