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Rogue State of Emergency Tonight: Illinois Farm Town Fights Second High Hazard Coal Slurry Dam

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When farmers, families and besieged Hillsboro residents gather this evening for a public hearing on a controversial permit proposal by a coal company to build a second 77-foot-high high hazard toxic coal slurry impoundment within city limits, the stakes will go beyond the threatened health of this iconic central Illinois farm town.

Overwhelmed by one of the biggest coal rushes in the nation, led by an absentee coal baron from West Virginia, Illinois citizens will be facing a rogue state division in the Office of Mines and Minerals/Department of Natural Resources that has lost any local or statewide confidence in the application of appropriate safeguards in the design, construction, and inspection of coal mines and high hazard coal slurry impoundment dams.

In effect: As the nation watches once again the mind-boggling spectacle of a notoriously gutted, biased and inept state agency, the blatant subversion of democracy is at stake this evening -- along with the health and welfare of a small farm town and its surrounding areas.

"The location of the second impoundment is disastrous," said Mary Ellen DeClue, a long-time area resident and respected mine whistleblower, who has testified and attended public hearings in her area for years. "I didn't think any location could be worse than that of impoundment # 1 situated in the watershed of Old Hillsboro Lake, but impoundment # 2 is even a greater concern."

The concerns of Hillsboro residents are hardly unfounded for the second high hazard coal dam, which will stretch 10,800 feet and have an impoundment capacity of 8,500-acre feet. Earlier this spring, only days after record rain fall and flooding in central Illinois led to a state of emergency, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released part of a study of similar coal slurry impoundments in West Virginia, the majority of which failed to pass required standards. In addition, a recent study by the non-partisan Downstream Strategies found that Illinois loses $20 million annually to maintain the state's coal industry. In essence: Coal is not only too dangerous, but too costly.

According to DeClue and members of local Citizens Against Longwall Mining, Hillsboro Energy's permit # 424 fails to answer a slew of unanswered regulatory questions, and would compromise the health and safety of the community and threaten farmland and water resources.

"The proposed second impoundment is too close to city residents, the first impoundment, and active mining," DeClue added. "Failure of the impoundment will produce tragic loss of life and property. The second impoundment will cover a considerable area of abandoned mine workings. Has there been a careful study to prevent any breakthrough from this impoundment? What methods were used to determine the exact size, depth, water content, stability of the mine voids below the impoundment?"

Here are maps of the proposed impoundment inside Hillsboro's town limits:

Two years ago, the same rogue Illinois agencies attracted national attention--and federal agency scrutiny--for the shameless way in which they rammed through a violation-ridden high hazard dam in Hillsboro.

Tonight: The besieged residents of Hillsboro--and the deeply rooted farmers in the surrounding areas--desperately need help from law enforcement officials, public interest organizations, farming groups, and community rights activists.

And they're not alone: Residents dealing with the toxic fallout of coal mines, coal slurry and unenforced land reclamation disasters across the state of Illinois--from eastern Murdock, to central towns of Banner and Canton, to my own stripmined Eagle Creek in Saline County--have appealed for help in dealing with the rogue actions Office of Mines and Minerals.

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