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Environmentalists sue to stop controversial Illinois frac sand mine

Three environmental groups have sued the state of Illinois in a last-ditch effort to stop a controversial frac sand mine from being built near Illinois’ most-visited state park.

In their lawsuit, the Sierra Club, Prairie Rivers Network and Openlands demanded that the court reject a surface mining permit issued earlier this year by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for an 80-acre, open-pit sand mine planned directly adjacent to Starved Rock State Park in Ottawa, Illinois.

The company developing it, St. Louis-based Mississippi Sand, has been approved by state agencies to receive three permits to move forward with the mine. Two of those permits, including the IDNR permit, have been issued. The third, from the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, has been approved but has not yet been issued.

There’s every reason to believe that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency will issue the permit that’s currently on hold, said Elliot Brinkman of the Prairie Rivers Network, a Champaign, Illinois, based river conservation group. Meanwhile, the surface mining permit from the IDNR was issued in violation of Illinois law regarding protection of natural areas, Brinkman maintained.

The Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network are members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News.

Demand for high-quality frac sand is increasing, with the majority of active mining operations currently in Wisconsin. Sand mining companies are obtaining land and expanding operations throughout the area around Ottawa, Illinois, where the sand lies close to the surface, making it easy to mine.

However, the good sand-mining areas are nearby two popular state parks, including Starved Rock State Park, a 2,630-acre tract of forested bluffs, canyons, and waterfalls hugging the Illinois River. Located just 90 miles southwest of Chicago, the park is the state’s most visited, attracting more than two million visitors in 2011.

In their lawsuit, environmentalists content that the IDNR did not adequately review Mississippi Sand’s plan to reclaim the area when the mining operations cease, in violation of state and federal law governing surface mining. They also claim that the agency “did not consider factors they were supposed to consider when granting the permit,” said Albert Ettinger, a Chicago-based lawyer who’s representing the environmental group. They also contend that the IDNR failed to comply with Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act.

IDNR spokespeople did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. But Tony Giordano, president of Mississippi Sand, said that while he had not yet reviewed the lawsuit, “this project has been scrutinized at a considerably higher level than normal on both agencies’ part,” referring to the IDNR and the IEPA.

“It’s disappointing of course that they’re attempting to delay our project from finishing,” Giordano said. “There’s no doubt this is affecting our ability to enter the market in a timely manner. … But there is a limit to these things,” Giordano said.

There are five other frac sand mines within two miles of Mississippi Sand’s that “are doing the same thing,” Giordano said. These include mines run by U.S. Silica and Fairmount Minerals.

“There’s no activity that’s going to take place in our parcel that isn’t going to take place in the parcel next to us,” Giordano said.

Environmentalists are pressing the case anyway, and not only to protect Starved Rock, Brinkman, of Prairie Rivers Network, said. The lawsuit is also meant to highlight what Brinkman calls “an inherent conflict of interest” in the how the Illinois Department of Natural Resources operates.

“On the one end, DNR is promoting conservation” of the state’s natural areas, Brinkman said. “On the other end they’re the permitting agency for natural resource extraction.”

“We need to focus on possible reforms,” Brinkman said, so the agency’s two missions are not at odds with each other—“so we’re not seeing a risky mining operation next to a state park.”

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