Enviros: Proposed coal mine would threaten refuge

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A proposed surface coal mine spanning 1,500 acres of southwestern Indiana's coal country would threaten an adjacent national wildlife refuge used by migratory birds with heavy metals and sediments exposed by mining and earth-moving operations, three environmental groups warn.

Evansville-based Vigo Coal Co. is seeking a federal permit under the Clean Water Act to develop the proposed Vigo Sunna Mine about 30 miles northeast of Evansville. Its permit application states that it would remove 18 miles of waterways, 29 acres of open waters and seven acres of wetlands in Pike County to expose the region's underlying coal deposits.

The Sierra Club, Hoosier Environmental Council and Conservation Law Center contend that the company's request is devoid of information about the vegetation, fish, aquatic insects and other wildlife that exists in the habitats it would destroy to reach the area's coal seams.

Without that data, they say the company's proposal to restore the area's habitat following mining, as is required under federal law, rings hollow.

"You have to know what the quality of the resource was, how it's functioning and what's there. You can't just say, 'We're going to impact so many linear feet or so many acres and then we'll restore it,'" said Tim Maloney, the Hoosier Environmental Council's senior policy director.

The groups detailed their opposition to Vigo Coal's permit application in formal comments submitted during a public comment period that ended July 24.

The mine's proximity to the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge is of particular concern of the groups. Part of the mine site is only two miles from the refuge, which harbors important nesting, feeding and resting sites for migratory birds.

The groups said that mining activities could allow sediments and heavy metals such as mercury and arsenic found naturally in coal seams to enter two streams that are tributaries of the Patoka River, which flows through part of the wildlife refuge.

"Coal is basically filled with all kinds of toxic materials--it's not just pure carbon," said Jodi Perras, who oversee the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign in Indiana. "You're digging up mercury and arsenic, selenium, boron, and when you dig that stuff out of the ground and expose it to water, you're polluting the area's waterways."

Unlike underground coal mining, where coal is extracted through tunnels dug into coal deposits, surface mining such as Vigo Coal's proposal involves removing surface vegetation, soils and rock and then blasting or digging out underlying coal, creating deep, valley-like excavations.

Maloney said surface mining could impact the federally endangered Indiana bat and other species of concern, including the copperbelly watersnake, found in the area.

The environmentalists want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is reviewing the permit request, to add requirements spelling out exactly what Vigo Coal must do to prevent runoff from the site and ensure that the area is restored close to its current state when mining ends.

Vigo Coal CEO Mike Schiele declined to speak July 26 about the groups' concerns about the company's proposed mine, saying "I have no comments, period."

Documents submitted by the company to the Army Corps indicate it would cost about $25 million to open the mine, which would yield at least 3 million tons of coal and create about 50 "high-wage jobs."

Vigo Coal also said in those documents that pod mining, an alternative to surface mining suggested by the environmental groups that involves excavating small pits between streams or wetlands, would be unfeasible for the site and would more than double the mining costs.

The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to take at least four months to reach a decision on the company's application, said Sam Werner, a Newburgh, Ind.-based regulatory project manager for the agency's Louisville, Ky., district.

He said the agency's options include approving the permit, rejecting it or asking the company to alter its proposal "if we determine there are environmental reasons to do so."

Werner said Army Corps will take into consideration the project's proximity to the wildlife refuge and its potential impact on the sprawling preserve.

If the agency approves the permit, Indiana regulators would then issue a general mining permit for the site. Environmentalists have challenged those state permits, calling them inadequate for the nature of mining operations and their potential impact on waters.

Georgia Parham, a Bloomington-based spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the agency is working with Indiana's Office of Surface Mining and the state's Division of Reclamation to ensure that Vigo Coal prepares adequate plans to safeguard the Indiana bat, a mouse-sized federally protected bat.


  • Wow
    Wow, Indiana is trying to keep up to become the dirtiest, fattest, unhealthiest state with the lowest number of college graduates. Sigh.
  • Please No
    We need another coal mine like we need another surface parking lot in downtown Indy. Nuclear is the future (thorium reactors).
  • fracking
    we need green energy projects, but until they are a reality we have to take advantage of the resources we have. keysstone pipeline would put thousands to work. Anyone not in favor of fracking is out of their mind. studies are routinely finding it safe, but because libs think their might be some danger, as with every other drilling for energy, they want to outlaw it. USA is the saudi arabi of natural gas. we could pay off billions in debt and pay for every little lib social project. instead, we're too dumb to take advantage of our own riches.
  • Not the birds!
    Oh no! Not the birds! And the watersnake! The world will be forever changed if the watersnake's environment is "impacted" by this. Let's never build another powerplant again. Better yet, let's tear down all our existing plants and go back to living in caves like our "noble" ancestors did. I'm sure they loved singing cumbaya and living as one with nature. Of course they didn't live past 23 so it's difficult to say.
  • Stop the Madness
    No, no, no! It's strip mining whatever you call it and coal is the power of the past. The Feds had better pull the plug on this one because the current administration would let them do anything.
  • just say no
    As long as we keep saying yes to fracking and mining projects like this, there will be no necessity for clean energy. It does, of course, take some political courage because the energy industry will finance any political opponent who wants to take someone with courage out of office. So,guess what, no clean energy.
  • Dirty Coal
    My feelings too Susan. We need some very smart minds working on this, because we want and need our electricity at a reasonable cost, but we also want a healthy environment. American ingenuity works best when necessity drives it. I'm praying for some great inventions for clean energy!!
  • Dirty Coal
    Hm? IBJ prints this on July 27th and public comment period ended July 24th. This quote has serious implications regarding asthma and other health complications for our children: "You're digging up mercury and arsenic, selenium, boron, and when you dig that stuff out of the ground and expose it to water, you're polluting the area's waterways." Moving beyond coal is not an easy thing, but it is the right thing. Change is always very painful. But creating lies about "clean" coal just hurts our children's healthy future from a dirty, harmful energy. Not only are there serious environmental questions regarding flora, fauna and geological damage, but also we need to ask how will we benefit from this coal? If it is burned in Indiana then we contribute to toxic pollution and huge CO2 emissions. If it is sold to China who benefits from the profit, 50 people? Let's put that 25 million toward clean alternative energy, solar, wind, bio fuels, and perhaps Natural Gas (although fracking is not the way to get it).
  • almighty pursuit
    Yes, lets pollute, kill and ruin every last bit of nature and habitat in our almighty pursuit of oil, gas and coal.

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