The Illinois Attorney General’s Office is suing the Sugar Camp Coal Mine near Benton following reports the mine dumped 46,000 gallons of hazardous fire-fighting foam in an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish a fire that had been burning underground last year.
The foam included at least 660 gallons of concentrated PFAS-based foam deep into the underground mine.
Attorney General Kwame Raoul’s lawsuit was filed in Franklin County Circuit Court and includes allegations of water pollution, creating a water pollution hazard, and discharges in violation of the limitations of the company’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
Raoul’s lawsuit alleges the pollution is the result of Sugar Camp using firefighting foam containing PFAS in an attempt to extinguish an underground fire that erupted at its mine facility in August.
“Sugar Camp jeopardized public safety and irresponsibly violated both state environmental statutes and the constraints of its permit by misusing dangerous ‘forever chemicals’,” Raoul said in a news release. “Exposure to such chemicals can cause long-lasting damage to the environment and poses a serious risk to public health. My office will work to ensure that Sugar Camp is held accountable for the damage it has done by using these chemicals.”
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According to Raoul’s lawsuit, an underground fire broke out in one of the Sugar Camp Mine’s two longwall mines on or around Aug. 14. Raoul alleges that Sugar Camp used firefighting foams containing PFAS to extinguish the fire. The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency subsequently received a citizen complaint regarding firefighting foam being discovered in a farm field ditch and a tributary to Akin Creek, located near the facility.
The Illinois EPA conducted an inspection and found evidence of the firefighting foam in the tributary to Akin Creek and in other nearby areas. Raoul’s complaint alleges that laboratory analysis of water samples revealed the presence of PFAS in the water. Subsequent sampling done by Sugar Camp further revealed the presence of PFAS in the facility’s impoundments and in permitted outfalls.
According to environmental and health experts, PFAS is a particularly dangerous chemical and it stays in the environment forever. Exposure to certain types of PFAS is also associated with low birth weight in humans, suppressed immune system response, dyslipidemia, impaired kidney function and delayed onset of menstruation.
Raoul’s lawsuit seeks to require Sugar Camp to immediately take corrective action to stop the discharge of PFAS or firefighting foam containing PFAS into nearby waters. The lawsuit also seeks civil penalties of up to $50,000 for each violation, and additional civil penalties of $10,000 for each day the violation continues.
In a news release, Sierra Club Illinois and Prairie River Network applauded Raoul’s efforts. The two groups, represented by Great Rivers Environmental Law Center and Albert Ettinger, previously filed a Notice of Intent to sue in November.
Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin said the group is pleased about the suit.
“The use of firefighting foam containing toxic PFAS chemicals at Sugar Camp Mine is the latest reminder that Illinois must move beyond coal and transition to a safer, renewable energy future. That future starts by holding coal companies like Sugar Camp Energy, LLC accountable for their actions and protecting communities from further harm.”
Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer with Prairie Rivers Network said the Illinois AG and Illinois EPA are moving in the right direction by filing this complaint.
“Sugar Camp Mine discharges to tributaries of Akin Creek and Middle Fork Big Muddy River and to the Akin Creek and Middle Fork Big Muddy River bodies of water directly,” he said. “As Illinois phases out the type of firefighting foam used under the recently passed PFAS Reduction Act, it is critical that the state holds polluters accountable when violations occur in order to protect local watersheds and the health of nearby communities.”
Sugar Camp owns and operates the Sugar Camp mine, a coal mining operation located near Macedonia. In 2016, Sugar Camp was issued an NPDES permit that authorized the company to discharge wastewater from specified outfalls at its mining facility, subject to limitations.
That permit does not authorize Sugar Camp to discharge PFAS.
The facility operates a network of pumps and pipelines that pump water from its two longwall mines in order to prevent underground flooding of the mines. This water is pumped to two slurry impoundments at the facility, and is ultimately discharged into nearby waters, including the Middle Fork of the Big Muddy River.
Foresight Energy LLC, the company that owns the mine, did not immediately respond for comment.