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Classic strip mining battle looms

Posted on 1/8/2014, 8:49 AM

In 1971 country/folk singer John Prine, created a public-relations nightmare for Peabody Energy.
His debut album featured a song titled "Muhlenberg County," a ballad about a young man wanting to return to the land of his childhood where he fished clear waters and hunted in uncut forests.
"And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County?" asks the young son. The father answers with the chorus:
"Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking,
"Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away."
The town of Paradise, Ky., in Muhlenberg County is a song lyric, not a reality today. The town is gone.
Fast forward to December, 2013.
Peabody Energy is on the move in Saline County.
It has filed an application to expand its stripping operation Cottage Grove Township in the eastern sweep of Saline County.
Peabody's Cottage Grove Mine is applying for a permit to mine 800 plus acres in the Rocky Branch Community south of state Route 13 and well east of Harrisburg. Peabody has applied to Saline County for permission to close Rocky Branch Road to the public, elevate it and use it for a haul road for the mine. The road would provide a shorter more economical route for moving coal out of the area say Peabody spokesmen.
The mine's neighbors needn't have heard Prine's song back in the day. They have other inspiration for their opposition. They are hearing the dynamite today, every day and on Sundays.
They don't like it one bit.
"What right does Peabody Energy have to destroy my home?" asked Allan Porter. He was visiting recently in the home of his neighbor, Donald Karns.
Porter has been asking that question at Saline County Board Meetings. He has asked that question while searching the files for explanations of the power that Peabody wields at the county courthouse.
He has asked that question to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources when they have held hearings at Southeastern Illinois College. The hearings were scheduled only after neighbors voiced their opposition to the state agency.
"I have asked that question a lot and as yet I have not gotten an answer from any of them," said Porter during a conversation at Karn's home on Thanksgiving Day.
Peabody will leave Saline County, say many opponents. Opponents also say Peabody will reclaim the land as cheaply as the law allows. The law requires 8 inches of top soil spread over a foundation of clay. Karns says that is not enough soil to grow healthy corn.
"The roots can't go deep. The yield is reduced," said Karns.
Ask again about the ground water behavior when a clay foundation is in place.
"The water can't percolate through the clay into the aquifer," said Allan Porter.
Some local residents say that the raising of Rocky Branch Road will just put flood waters into their homes.
The claim is made that the water will have nowhere else to go once the dike effect of the raised road takes place.
Porter told how his walls shake when the coal company sets off its dynamite.
"There is damage," Porter said.
"I plan to leave my house and property to my family. Are they going to destroy it just because I didn't sell it to them?
"I built that home. What I want is to leave a legacy for future generations."
There are other concerns for farmers who wouldn't sell to Peabody.
"If they get the permit I am going to have to look out my kitchen window into a strip pit," said Karns. "The cattle stampede now when they set off a shot at the mine. It just makes you want to cry."
He has said at public meetings that some of the lakes left behind after strip mining become mosquito breeding grounds and that the dust generated by the mining is a serious problem.
"Yes they made me an offer to buy the place, but I don't want to sell it," Karns said.
"I have no quarrel with the miners. They need their jobs like anyone else. But what about my rights?"
Barney Bush, a native American and director of the Vinyard Indian Settlement, located on a 400 acre parcel north of Herod in neighboring Pope County, is joining the farmers in their opposition to the mine expansion.
"I feel a kinship with their respect for their land," he said.
"Many of our predecessors were escapees from the Trail of Tears. The settlers here in Herod welcomed them into their community and our ancestors settled here too."
The first settlers were of Irish and German descent.
The Native Americans were Shawnee, a tribe whose lands once stretched the entire length of the Ohio River into the headlands in New York state.
"We are going to lose burial grounds. I can't stand for an elder to be disrespected. We may be able to oppose the expansion under provisions of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act."
Bush's ideas on U.S. history don't tolerate ignorance of facts.
He calls a myth a myth.
And he calls a sociopath a sociopath.
They can operate with no concern for the welfare of others," he said. "I want to help these people who love their homes and the land that surrounds them. I want to protect our gravesites and old village sites."
But shutting down mines is not the end game for Bush.
"We need an economy that is not single-faceted. We need a multi-faceted economy for the area," he said.
Peabody Energy offered the following prepared statement:
"Cottage Grove has 200 direct employees. As neighbors, Peabody works to mitigate and minimize any inconvenience to residents from mining activities. Our operations have earned numerous awards for safety and environmental practices and we have an excellent record of environmental compliance. Cottage Grove is moving through a routine permitting process to continue mining on existing coal reserves which secures jobs for area residents. We pride ourselves on good neighbor practices, and we will continue our diligence in ensuring standards are met — while creating an annual payroll of $25 million and supporting 600+ ancillary jobs and significant growth in Saline County."