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Illinois Sues Company for Dumping Toxic Chemicals Into Southern Illinois Coal Mine in Unsuccessful Attempt to Extinguish Underground Fire



January 8, 2022 - Owners of a southern Illinois coal mine violated multiple state laws by dumping toxic foam deep underground in an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish a fire, according to a new lawsuit that documents high levels of pollution in nearby creeks and ditches.

The complaint from Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul seeks to force St. Louis-based Foresight Energy to eliminate threats to public health and the environment at its Sugar Camp mine in Franklin County, about 270 miles southwest of Chicago.

Raoul also is asking a judge to prohibit Foresight from using firefighting foam made with chemicals known as PFAS . Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a growing concern worldwide because they remain in the environment forever, linger in the blood of exposed people for years and trigger several health problems, including cancer, liver damage and decreased fertility.

Foam made with the chemicals is being phased out in Illinois and 11 other states. But stocks of it are still on hand at airports and industrial operations such as Sugar Camp.

“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 Friday in a statement. “Exposure to such chemicals can cause long-lasting damage to the environment and poses a serious risk to public health.”

Raoul’s lawsuit, filed in Franklin County Circuit Court, comes after environmental activists announced plans to file their own complaint under provisions of the federal Clean Water Act.

“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,” said Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club. “That future starts by holding coal companies like (Foresight) ... accountable for their actions and protecting communities from further harm.”

The Chicago Tribune first reported in October that one of Foresight’s lawyers told state officials the foam used at Sugar Camp was biodegradable and would not harm fish or wildlife .

Inspectors later determined the company had pumped more than 46,000 gallons of PFAS-laden foam into the mine, raising the possibility that nearby private wells and other sources of drinking water could be contaminated.

Company officials hired contractors to drill boreholes into the mine without a permit, records show. One of the boreholes is close to a creek where testing by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency detected high levels of PFAS.

Both the fire and Foresight’s responses to it remained secret until a local environmental activist took pictures of foam that had drifted to aboveground ditches and farm fields near the mine entrance. The activist forwarded the photos to state officials and to the Tribune, which sought more details under the Freedom of Information Act.

Portions of the mine are still smoldering. Federal mining regulators have blocked Foresight from resuming production.

Foresight executives did not return requests for comment.

Because PFAS remain largely unregulated, federal and state officials have struggled to protect Americans from the chemicals, even though it became clear more than two decades ago that they pose widespread hazards to public health .

Nearly all Americans have PFAS in their blood, studies have found. The compounds are known largely for their use in products featuring the Teflon and Scotchgard brands, manufactured by DuPont and 3M, respectively. Dozens of related compounds are widely used in food packaging, stain- and water-resistant clothing, carpets and household products, among other things.

Foresight, one of the last coal companies operating in Illinois, declared bankruptcy in 2020. Yet the company produced more than half the 32 million tons of coal mined in the state during the same year.

Nearly all of Foresight’s coal is shipped to other states and countries. The company cuts costs by relying on longwall mining , a process that uses robotic equipment rather than people to do most of the work.

Since opening in 2008, Sugar Camp has repeatedly shown up on the U.S. EPA’s list of chronic violators of the federal Clean Water Act . Five of the 16 Illinois miners killed on the job since 2008 worked at the mine, where the injury rate exceeded the national average at times during the past decade.

The mine also is a major source of heat-trapping pollution scrambling the planet’s climate. During 2020, companies that burned Foresight coal released more carbon dioxide than emissions from all 4.6 million automobiles registered in Illinois, according to a Chicago Tribune analysis.