The Big Muddy River’s Long, Turbulent Relationship with Coal

As a proposal threatens to dump mining waste into a Mississippi River tributary, an Illinois community reassesses its coal industry ties.
The Big Muddy River from Inspiration Point in Wolf Lake, Illinois

Ted Cox/One Illinois

Southern Illinois has been coal country for quite some time. Men first mined coal there in 1810, when they took the black rock from outcroppings along the bluffs of the Big Muddy River. They’d load it onto a flatboat and send it south to where the Muddy meets up with the Mississippi River. From there, it would head downriver to a port in New Orleans.

In 1882, the Office of Mines and Minerals reported that Illinois had more coal than any other state east of the Mississippi. The state’s coal industry once employed tens of thousands of people, but as mining became increasingly mechanized, its ranks shrank. Despite being second in the country when it comes to coal reserves (behind Montana), Illinois only employed roughly 3,000 people last year.

Mine workers at the Chicago and Big Muddy Coal Company in Marion in the early 1900s

Williamson County Historical Society

In 2005, Foresight Energy, a Murray Energy Corp. subsidiary, began developing a longwall mine in Williamson and Franklin counties near the Big Muddy River. This type of mining involves a highly mechanized process that follows the whole coal seam and requires fewer workers than more traditional methods but yields lots of coal. Williamson Energy began operating the mine for Foresight in 2008. By 2013, the mine, called Pond Creek, was the most productive underground coal mine in the country. It yielded 6.9 million tons of coal in 2018.

Removing coal, however, can cause the land to subside and mining it came at a cost to local residents. Some homeowners entered into settlements with the company as ponds dried up and building foundations cracked. Some structures even appeared lopsided and required demolition.

And as miners bored along the coal seams over the last 12 years, groundwater from a saline aquifer began to fill the cavity. Williamson Energy proposed in 2017 to pump the water—up to 3.5 million gallons a day—from Pond Creek, through a newly constructed 12-mile pipeline, into the Big Muddy. That’s when many people in the community said, “Enough’s enough.”

Williamson Energy’s proposal puts it in direct conflict with the area’s other major industry: tourism for hunting and fishing. Fishermen now complain about sores and deformed gills on the fish they pull from the Big Muddy.

The community is caught in what environmental activist Georgia de la Garza calls a coal paradigm culture, where many of the people once supported by the industry are now seeing its long-term impacts on the environment and public health.

But their complaints, she says, don’t seem to reach the state agencies responsible for protecting natural resources. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) issued one of the permits needed for Pond Creek Mine’s pumping project in July 2019. And now, as the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) reviews another permit, a number of locals are fighting its approval, saying the project’s waste will further contaminate the river and everything that lives in it.

Chris Cline (left), owner of Foresight Energy, looking down the long wall of coal in the Pond Creek coal mine in Johnston City, Illinois

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Big Muddy is by no means pristine. The state advises against eating the river’s fish, such as crappie, largemouth bass, and carp, due to high levels of mercury, a potent neurotoxin, that comes from the coal industry’s sewage and pollution, according to a government report published in 1999. The mining waste that Foresight proposes to pump into the river would contain sulfates and chlorides, which can be toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

The mine’s owners would be required to monitor the waste and ensure that the chloride concentration is no higher than the state’s limit of 500 milligrams per liter, something that those who oppose the project are not confident the company will do. Last year, the Illinois attorney general’s office cited Foresight for violating the Clean Water Act, eventually reaching an $80,000 settlement. In addition to inadequate monitoring, state inspection reports showed the mine discharged water with levels of sulfate and chloride above what's allowed.

“We don’t trust the mine to monitor its waste, given its past violations and failure to report,” says Andrew Rehn, a water resources engineer for the nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network, a group against the proposal.

To get to acceptable sulfate and chloride concentrations, the company plans to dilute the waste with the Big Muddy’s water in a mixing zone along the river. But how well that waste is diluted depends on the amount of water flowing in the river, and the permit doesn’t outline how monitoring should account for that. Representatives from Williamson’s parent company, Foresight, did not respond to interview requests.

Ask Governor Pritzker to fight for cleaner air for communities across Illinois

It’s an echo of the days when companies used to say the solution to pollution is dilution, says Cindy Skrukrud, a biochemist who serves as the clean water program director for the Sierra Club chapter in Illinois, another group opposed to the project.

If approved, the Big Muddy project could also affect threatened freshwater mussels in the river’s tributaries. A survey of the basin conducted in 2012 shows that mussels may also live in Big Muddy itself, but water levels were too deep at the time to check for the mollusks.

The biggest issue with the high chloride levels is that they could react with the mercury on the river bottom. This combination of chemicals could convert the mercury to methylmercury, a more toxic form that accumulates in the tissues of animals. As small contaminated fish become meals for larger fish, concentrations of the neurotoxin can rise dramatically as it moves up the food chain.

“That’s something we’ve started to see improvements in because nationwide we’ve worked to limit the amount of mercury that comes out of smokestacks,” says Skrukrud. “But by putting more chlorides into the Big Muddy, this mine could be making the mercury that’s already there more available.”

The low flow of the Big Muddy River as it winds through Plumfield, Ill.

USGC

When de la Garza was growing up on a farm near Marion, Illinois, she had a rope swing along the banks of the Big Muddy. She learned how to swim, canoe, bird-watch, and scout mussels there. To her, the river is home. For the last 15 years, she’s been fighting coal companies through her nonprofit Shawnee Hills and Hollers. She has been to every public meeting on the Pond Creek Mine proposal over the past two years.

The public reaction to the Pond Creek permit shows how the community is changing, she says. Just a couple of years ago, Foresight Energy applied for another permit to dispose of mine waste into the Big Muddy from its Sugar Camp mine, located north of Pond Creek, and the proposal got virtually zero public pushback. (As of August 2020, the company hasn’t installed that project’s pipeline.)

Hundreds of local residents at a hearing about the Pond Creek Permit, December 2019

Holly Key/Marion Republican

But when the IEPA held a public meeting about the Pond Creek permit this past December, just a week before Christmas, more than 150 people attended—a big turnout for a small town that included de la Garza and families with deep roots in the mining industry.

“My biggest concern is that, again, we’re going to be pushed aside,” she says. The water is devastatingly polluted, and the communities suffer. The company officials and the agencies that approve their requests, she says, “just don’t see us here. They see what’s underneath us.”

The IEPA is going over all the comments from the meeting, according to an agency spokesperson, and, based on previous timelines, it could decide whether to issue a permit within the next six months.

In the meantime, the Big Muddy will continue to meander through coal country, taking whatever the industry dumps in it to the Mississippi, and beyond.

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