Activists seek hearing on mine pipeline to Big Muddy River

SAFE charges wastewater would pollute river, increase flood risk

The Big Muddy River flows beneath Inspiration Point in Wolf Lake. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

The Big Muddy River flows beneath Inspiration Point in Wolf Lake. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Activists are seeking a public hearing on a proposed wastewater pipeline to run from a southern Illinois coal mine into the Big Muddy River.

Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment and members of the Illinois Sierra Club charge it would allow from 2.7 to 3.5 million gallons of wastewater a day, heavy with chlorides and sulfates, to be pumped into the river, and that it would increase river volume between 10 and 20 percent.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is weighing a permit on the actual 12-inch pipeline, proposed to run wastewater from Williamson Energy’s Pond Creek Mine, near Johnston City, 14 miles to the Big Muddy, but the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has tentatively granted a separate permit on the actual water release, pending a public-comment period set to expire Aug. 12.

SAFE and other environmentalists are pushing for the IEPA to grant a public hearing on the matter in order to shine a spotlight on the pipeline and allow local residents to join the debate. The tentative IEPA permit states: “Any person may submit a request for a public hearing and if such written comments or requests indicate a significant degree of public interest in the draft permit, the permitting authority may, at its discretion, hold a public hearing.”

The pollution issues are bad enough, potentially threatening birds, fish, and even local residents living near the Big Muddy, but for Cameron Smith, co-owner of the Douglass School Art Place in Murphysboro, it’s all about the potential flooding.

“That’s where I’m coming from,” he said Thursday. “Is this going to maximize and cause more flooding on our property?”

According to Smith, this spring, with its heavy rains, saw the river reach 31 feet, flood stage. The woods near the historic Frederick Douglass School, located at 900 Douglass St., become wetlands under those conditions, and the woods were damp and boggy from March until just last week.

Yet in the infamous 2010 flood, the river topped 40 feet, with water leaving the woods and crossing the school yard until it threatened the door to the basement. Smith sandbagged and ran sump pumps to keep the former school as dry as possible.

“If that happens again and they’re pumping all this stuff from the mine, they’re talking a 10 to 20 percent increase in the river flow,” Smith said.

Built in 1897, the Frederick Douglass School was originally for segregated African-American students, with as many as 200 enrolled. (Notably, the name etched in stone on the school misspelled the name of the renowned anti-slavery activist as “Douglas.”) It operated until about 1960, and became a warehouse until Smith’s wife, Jan Thomas, bought it with a partner in 1993 intending to turn it into an artist colony.

Smith and Thomas eventually turned the cafeteria into a glass-blowing works, and opened the classrooms to other tenants as artist studios. “The Doug,” as it’s popularly known, also has an exhibition space that frequently plays host to students from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. The Doug still has a handful of artist tenants, although Smith allowed, “It’s a little lean right now because the economy’s pretty slow. A lot of people don’t have extra money for studio spaces.”

Not coincidentally, public housing is located nearby. “They just built it on the lower end of the town,” Smith said — literally, not metaphorically. But residents might potentially be threatened with polluted water filling the woods and expanding out in a flood.

That’s not even considering the fish and fowl living in and on the Big Muddy along with other residents along its course. “There are people who fish the Big Muddy,” Smith said, “who live along it.”

Smith and SAFE also emphasize that the pipeline as it’s designed would enter the Big Muddy below the Plumfield Gage Station, one of three places along the river where its height and volume are monitored. “So the Corps of Engineers would not be getting a true reading of what the water level is,” Smith said, thus increasing the risk of flooding for those downstream, as in Murphysboro.

That’s one of the many issues SAFE and other environmentalists hope to shine a light on in a public hearing.

The IEPA has stated that the mine will have ponds that will allow contaminants to settle before the top water is drained off and piped into the Big Muddy at permissible pollution levels.

But Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens wrote a letter to the Southern Illinoisan a month ago opposing the pipeline. “As the son, grandson, and great-grandson of coal miners, I am keenly aware of mine-worker safety issues. I want Pond Creek Mine to be able to operate in a way that provides jobs, powers our communities, and provides a safe environment for the workers,” he wrote. “At the same time, I have a responsibility as mayor to raise my voice when a proposal has the potential to harm my community. As I observe a Big Muddy River that has remained above flood stage for many weeks, why would I want even the cleanest additional water added to the Big Muddy? Knowing this water would contain elevated concentrations of sulfates and chlorides, can anyone tell me why I should support this plan?”

For now, SAFE and other activists are urging locals to weigh in on the public-comment period by emailing IEPA staffer Darin LeCrone at They recommend including one’s name and address along with specific concerns, and suggest that the subject heading include the permit information, NPDES IL0077666 Notice No. 7516c. Or one can mail public comment to the IEPA Bureau of Water directly at the Water Pollution Control Permit Section, 1021 North Grand Ave. East, Springfield, Ill., 62794-0276, again making sure to include the permit and notice info.

“The agency has received a few requests to hold a public hearing for the referenced permit, which is allowed per the pubic notice,” said IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs. “The agency has not made a final determination on a public hearing at this time. If a hearing is held, the necessary public notice will be provided.”

“We need to get the word out to people on our request to have a hearing,” Smith said. “If the hearing is granted, as we hope, then people will attend the meeting and their voices will be heard. To me, it’s thousands of people versus billions of dollars. So hopefully if we get enough voices people might listen.”