The Daily Register - Harrisburg, IL
  • Preliminary decision: Cottage Grove Road goes to Peabody

  • Following a hearing on the future of the remaining 1/4 mile section of Cottage Grove Road Thursday night, Saline County Highway Engineer Jeff Jones returned from deliberating and announced the road should be vacated for use of Peabody Coal.
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  • Following a hearing on the future of the remaining 1/4 mile section of Cottage Grove Road Thursday night, Saline County Highway Engineer Jeff Jones returned from deliberating and announced the road should be vacated for use of Peabody Coal.
    The decision followed three-and-a-half hours of passionate testimony from six people opposed to the road’s vacation — all Rocky Branch residents resistant to the expansion of the Peabody Energy Cottage Grove strip mine to near the Rocky Branch community — and three mine employees in favor of the road vacation.
    Peabody Energy wants use the road as a haulage road for heavy mine equipment crossing the highway between new strip mine south of the highway and the existing operation north of it. Rocky Branch residents propose keeping the road as is for residential traffic and utilizing semi tractor-trailers to move the coal, a scenario Peabody workers say puts more highway motorists in danger.
    Jones’ decision is not final.
    “This is a preliminary hearing. There is still a final hearing before the final decision will be implemented,” Jones said, prior to announcing his decision.
    “There has been a lot of good testimony. Some of it I’m very sympathetic to, but it’s very specific in the law what I’m supposed to consider and that is this road and the economic and public interest and access. So with the information presented here tonight based on the relevant evidence presented here I find that the vacation of Cottage Grove Road is in the public and economic interest and further find that any person residing or who owns land within two mines still has reasonable access. “Having said that, the process as I understand it, at this point, damages will have to be assessed as a result of this decision. A survey may be required and then once those are done another meeting, a final meeting, will be scheduled within 20 days of those things,” Jones said.
    At the beginning of the hearing Jones announced the rules for the hearing. Three township voters residing within two miles of the road would be representing their group. Members of that group at the meeting agreed Mike Karns, Stephen Karns and Rhonda Dillard would represent them.
    Three farmers within 2 miles of the road would be representing the farming community. That group chose Alan Porter, Don Porter and Tim Tuttle to represent them.
    Three people representing petitioners for the road closing — Peabody — were also able to give testimony. Those were Peabody employees Paul Winter, Max Haney and Jeff Guard.
    Any of the nine had the opportunity to call witnesses and to cross-examine witnesses. The hearing is part of the formal process of deciding upon a petition of Peabody Energy to Cottage Township to close the road and sell it to Peabody as a haulage road. Cottage Grove Road Commissioner Mike Karns said several weeks ago township did not wish to close the road — even though the Saline County Board had already voted to vacate the portion of the road under its jurisdiction and sell it to the mine. Peabody appealed the township’s decision which meant the county highway engineer had to make a decision weighing the two issues of public and economic interest and reasonable access for residents.
    Page 2 of 4 - Haney, safety manager at Cottage Grove Mine and Berry Hill Road resident, spoke to the miners’ patronage of local businesses and volunteerism in helping find victims in the Feb. 29, 2012, tornado. He then called on witness Frank Brasinsky, Peabody engineer in the land division.
    Brasinsky said of about 200 mine employees 35 percent are residents of Saline County. The mine has produced $35 million in wages and benefits, much of which goes back to the local economy and helps support up to 600 other jobs in the community, he said.
    Brasinsky said the use of the road as a haulage road is “the optimal solution for public safety.”
    Peabody is offering Cottage Township $15,000 per year and $30,000 per year once the coal trucks cease using it and the mine would build a temporary intersection to reach Rocky Branch Cemetery, Brasinsky said.
    The mine is to last for five years and mining would complete in 2019. There would be another two years of reclamation and another five to seven years beyond that for the bond to be released and then the roads impacted could be restored, Brasinski said.
    Farmer Don Porter said he estimates there may be up to $30 million worth of coal beneath roads Peabody wants to vacate. He also estimates the county will lose out in the long run as families move away when mine blasting becomes unbearable. He predicts a $20,000 a year loss in property taxes.
    Resident Rhonda Dillard said residents found the road invaluable during the 2011 flood when other roads were cut off by flood water.
    “We need the road for flooding purposes and and it’s a road our community depends on. Peabody wants it; we need it,” Dillard said.
    As to the flooding problem Haney said it was his understanding Peabody would build the road that floods higher and with culverts installed that should solve the flooding issue.
    Dillard also said since Equality responds to fires in the area with the road closed they may have to drive south to College Road, a distance far enough out of the way that her home would be more heavily damaged.
    Dillard called on Cottage Township Trustee Judy Kellen to give testimony. Kellen said when the strip mine in is operation residents will be unable to open their windows for the dust, will experience cracked cisterns and damage to woodburning fireplaces.
    “There are other ways to help the economy without destroying lives,” Kellen said.
    Farmer Tim Tuttle brought an interesting development into the proceedings when he produced as evidence the right of way deed for the road. Tuttle owns farmland adjacent to Cottage Grove Road to the east. Peabody owns adjacent property to the west. The deed states that should the road be abandoned by the township the right of way returns to the landowners. That development means if the road is vacated Tuttle’s property line would be in the middle of the haulage road.
    Page 3 of 4 - Jones accepted a copy of the deed as evidence.
    Stephen Karns said according to state statutes before there can be a hearing on a road closure the landowner must be consulted about damages and asked Tuttle if Peabody had consulted him.
    Tuttle said the company had not.
    “What would you consider damages,” Haney asked Tuttle in cross-examination.
    “I don’t know. I am just here to see about accessing the road and closing the road. I have not talked to them about how I would get access if they close the road,” Tuttle said.
    Jones cautioned witness called by Peabody Bobby Simpson to keep on the topic of the road when he questioned the motivations of the Rocky Branch residents.
    “The truth is this is not about a road,” Simpson said.
    “This is a small group of rich farmers. They do not care about coal mining, trucks or the rest of the community. They have their millions.”
    He referred to those opposed to the mine as “environmentalists.”
    Georgia de la Garza interrupted from the audience saying “We’re not environmentalists, we’re humanitarians.”
    Mike Karns surprised Jones when he said Peabody was not the only private entity that has offered to purchase the road.
    “There was another offer for the road more than $15,000. A group of private individuals wanted to buy the road,” he said.
    The will of the people was to keep the road open, so that offer was refused.
    When called as a witness farmer Alan Porter produced a petition signed by 54 individuals in the township calling for keeping the road open. Jones accepted the petition as evidence.
    When called as a witness by Alan Porter Georgia de la Garza said the hearing is premature in that the township meeting during which Mike Karns was approved as road commissioner did not meet legal requirements of the Illinois Open Meetings Act with no agenda and no public posting. She said that earlier Thursday she had filed an injunction with Judge Todd Lambert and he had issued a restraining order against the township.
    “With that being said, this meeting is jumping the gun,” de la Garza said.
    “It needs to be done, especially if Saline County is going to do business with the largest coal company in the world, it needs to be done above board,” she said.
    Jones asked de la Garza if she was a township resident. She said she stays there part time and he told her she was unable to continue testifying in the hearing.
    “I object according to the Open Meetings Act,” she said.
    Page 4 of 4 - Once Jones announced his decision and adjourned, resident Jennifer Dumbris raised her hand but Jones did not acknowledge her.
    “I object to that because Tim Tuttle has shown that he owns the road,” Dumbris said.
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