Fossil fuel burning and extraction poses varied threats to Illinois waterways, groundwater aquifers, and air quality.
Coal underlies 65% of Illinois—as demand for Appalachian coal declines, Illinois communities are facing a surge of new coal mining. The risk imposed on those living in Illinois coal mining communities is increased even more due to deficient permitting and enforcement programs that grant industry lax and inexpensive requirements. Coal mining pollutes water, damages or destroys prime farmland, and pollutes our air. Illinois regulatory agencies regularly grant permission to mine through streams and wetlands, which also threatens water quality downstream. Underground long-wall mining intentionally subsides thousands of acres of land, which impacts groundwater and surface streams, water wells, prime farmland, and roads.
As families retreat from mining impacts, the rural network of long-time farm families in Illinois is destroyed. Towns become dependent on the boom and bust coal industry. When the coal is gone, the mining employment ends, leaving a toxic legacy of coal waste for future generations. If mine companies go out of business with insufficient bonding, state and local communities are faced with cleaning up the abandoned mine land.
Outdated pollution control technologies do not remove pollution in waste-water or site runoff before it is discharged into rivers, streams, and lakes. Coalmines utilize millions of gallons of fresh water each day at each mine to wash the coal. The highly polluted waste-water, or coal slurry, is stored permanently in large impoundments, often exceeding a billion gallons of toxic liquid, which can leak and contaminating surface and/or groundwater. Additionally, coalmines contribute to air pollution from emissions of particulate matter and gases, including methane, sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, as well as carbon monoxide. High levels of suspended particulate matter increase respiratory diseases such as chronic bronchitis and asthma, while gaseous emissions contribute to respiratory, cardiovascular, and cerebral problems.
Natural gas development via hydraulic fracturing leaves extensive environmental degradation in its wake. Fracturing a single deeper horizontal shale well can use anywhere from 2 to 10 million gallons of water. This can result in ecological impacts to aquatic resources, as well as the de-watering of drinking water aquifers. A variety of chemicals—many known to be toxic to humans and wildlife—make up 0.5% to 2.0% of the total volume of fracturing fluid. When millions of gallons of water are being used, however, the amount of toxic chemicals per fracking operation is very large. Human exposure to fracking chemicals can occur by ingesting chemicals that have spilled and entered drinking water sources, through direct skin contact with the chemicals or wastes, or by breathing in vapors from flowback wastes stored in open pits or tanks. Contamination of soil and surface waters can occur due to spills during transportation, fracturing operations, and waste disposal, resulting in fish kills and death of other aquatic fauna, and tainted watersheds and waterways.
Millions of gallons of waste-water are generated from shale gas wells and require either treatment for re-use, or disposal. This flowback may contain a variety of materials, including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides, and organics, making treatment difficult and expensive. Most drinking water treatment facilities are not equipped to treat and remove flowback contaminants. Up to 85% of fracturing fluids may remain in formations, continuing to be a source of groundwater contamination for years to come.
Methane leaks resulting from natural gas production are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Approximately 25% of human caused global warming is caused by methane emissions, and the largest source of industrial emissions is the oil and gas industry.
The coal industry should be responsible for funding adequate inspection, permitting, and enforcement program as well as any damages to the state. While Illinois has a proud history of being one of the first states with a surface reclamation law, the impacts of mining on the state have been permanent and devastating. We must learn from this experience and make the protection of water resources a priority. Dams on small streams for coal should no longer be allowed. Coal ash and coal ash ponds should be adequately regulated by IEPA rulemaking. Coal impoundment should require financial assurance. Finally, slurry ponds should be prohibited from using waters of the state as treatment work and being able to remain permanently under SMCRA.
Fracking has always been legal in Illinois, but was previously nearly unregulated in the state. The High Volume Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing Act is an important step towards protecting the environment and public health. If the statute or regulations on fracking are improved, many aspects should be considered, including injection well regulatory and permitting system reform. Changes should include better standards, more robust inspection, and prohibitions of injection wells in inappropriate areas. Fracking waste should be classified as hazardous under RCRA and must be stored in Class I injection wells.
- Visit Prairie Rivers Network’s website to learn more about coal pollution and how you can help protect Illinois’s air and water.
- Check out IEPA’s coal ash fact sheet and coal ash impoundment progress. Click here for a summary of environmental concerns regarding coal ash.
- Environment Illinois covers mercury pollution from coal.
- Check out this report from NAACP analyzing sulfur dioxide (SO2) and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emissions in conjunction with demographic factors – including race, income, and population density – to rank the environmental justice performance of the nation’s 378 coal fired power plants.
- Learn more about the dangerous and costly air pollution created by burning coal from the Respiratory Health Association
- The Toll From Coal: An Updated Assessment of Death and Disease from America’s Dirtiest Energy Source by the Clean Air Task Force, 2010.
- Read the Environmental Law and Policy Center’s summary of Illinois’s fracking law.
- Fracking fact sheet by Earth Justice on fracking.
- Earthworks 101 on Hydraulic Fracturing
- Prairie Rivers Network covers frac sand mining. And another summary from the League of Conservation voters HERE.
- Article from the Chicago Tribune on the frac sand mine fight in LaSalle County and coverage of mining around Starved Rock State Park from Midwest Energy News can be found HERE.