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Fight over Fulton County Coal Mine Drags On


A judge is set to rule soon on whether the Illinois DNR made the right call in renewing a permit for proposed coal mine near Canton Lake in Fulton County.

The DNR partially struck down the permit but said since it didn't strike down the entire mining permit, the mine can still go forward.

It's their community and they're really willing to do whatever sort of watchdogging and organizing and door to door knocking that's necessary...

Some Canton residents are worried runoff from the mine will contaminate the lake, which is the town's main supply of drinking water.

On a warm fall afternoon, a long line of cars stretches along a gravel road at the border of what may become the “North Canton Mine.”

At the end of the line is a large ford truck with Jim Essex and Brenda Dilts.

On the way to the mine site they point out houses they say are the DNR's mine subsidence list, houses built on former coal mines whose foundations are settling and cracking.

This isn’t the first of these tours they helped lead.

Essex and Dilts are part of Canton Area Citizens for Environmental Issues or CACEI. The group has been fighting the coal mine ever since the company announced plans to build it at a city council meeting in 2006.

Several CACIE members say they weren't allowed to speak at that meeting, which was one of the reasons they founded their group.  

Essex lives just a couple miles from the site, so he opposes it for a couple reasons.

“Yeah its not only environmentally important, its kinda personal too, it’s getting close to home,” he said.

Credit SSS
Joe Cooper's house, which is on the border of the proposed North Canton Mine.

One of the stops on the tour is a large, new white house which set back from the road on a driveway that passes through  a line of trees.

Dilts said it’s also personal for other members of CACIE, like Joe Cooper and his wife, who own the white house.

“They bought this land off the nature conservancy in an auction and built their dream home. And as soon as they got it up, why they found the coal company was across the street from them,” Dilts said.

CACIE has gotten help from state wide environmental groups, like the Prairie Rivers Network, The Sierra Club, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Kady McFadden, with the Sierra’s Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, is not involved directly with the North Canton Mine case, but said she wanted to come on the tour to learn more about the work the local Canton group has been doing.

She said even though smaller, local groups get help from larger environmental groups, the local groups are vital in these types of cases.

"These communities are a lot savvier maybe than you would expect. You know digging through permits and following these battles because at the end of the day it’s their community and they’re really willing to do whatever sort of watchdogging and organizing and door to door knocking that’s necessary to protect their community and so it’s really inspiring to see,” She said.

Credit SSS
The tour group on the shore of Canton Lake, which could receive pollutants from the proposed North Canton Mine.

One of the other tour leaders is Tracy Barkley.  She’s a Water Scientist with the Prairie Rivers Network.
Barkley said that while the members of CACIE have worked really hard there are some challenges that a local group would have a hard time overcoming.

She said that it’s hard to get basic information on cases and there are obstacles even if groups actually get their hands on that information.

"In fact it requires if you’re are going to appeal a permit you actually have a lawyer sign the materials and that ends up being tricky for residents, to find a lawyer, work with a lawyer, pay a lawyer. And sometimes these challenges can go on for years, which that’s quite a hurdle both for their spirits, their time and for their finances.”

CACIE’s Jim Essex said that having to work with a lawyer has been challenging.

“We have a very good attorney representing us but it’s expensive and we have to support our bills through various sales, you know and such as that. We’ll have garage sales and the ladies have bake sales.”

Essex is hopeful about the upcoming ruling because of a comment on the case from the judge.

“As he interpreted it, it’s all over right now! There’s nothing in there that said denied in part. It said denied for this reason! And so it could be interesting," he said.

Though even if the judge rules against the mine and says the DNR should not have renewed its permit, the mine could start is permit application again.

Which means this likely won’t be Cacie’s last tour.   

Scott Stuntz is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.