(AP) — Some residents who live near the largest surface coal mine east of the Mississippi River are concerned that dust from the operation could be hazardous, and are urging state and federal officials to take action. At least a dozen people have complained to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management since 2012 that dust from Peabody Energy's Bear Run Mine in Sullivan County, about 35 miles south of Terre Haute, has covered their property.
Blakely and Joshua Pugh tell The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1FIlaGS) they worry about the damage they believe that dust is doing to their four-year-old son, Noah, who has suffered from chronic respiratory problems since blasting began at Bear Run soon after they moved there in 2012. They blame the dust for his hacking coughs, constant earaches and almost daily sniffles.
"We never bargained for any of that when we moved in here," said 26-year-old Joshua Pugh, who works as a coal miner. But the newspaper reports a gap in Indiana regulations says that state officials must personally see dust to take action against the mine. "I was told, along with someone else that phoned, that if they didn't see it 'it didn't happen,'" said 70-year-old David Hale, who lives nearby.
Peabody said in a statement that the mine "operates in a safe, environmentally sound manner and complies with all state and federal air, land and water quality permits." The company says Bear Run provides the region with an economic boost of 625 jobs and more than $8 million in tax payments, while supplying the state with a reliable source of cheap energy. IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed said in a statement that the agency "worked appropriately" to issue the air-quality agreement for Bear Run based on "potential emissions the facility would generate if it were to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, at full capacity."
Sneed said that when IDEM inspectors visited the mine during at least four inspections, they didn't see any dust leaving the property, so they took no action. He said IDEM officials watched mine employees spraying water to keep dust down. "The mine environmental staff has informed IDEM that the operation works to minimize blasting activity on days when there are windy conditions," Sneed said.
Bowden Quinn, conservation director of the Sierra Club's Hoosier Chapter, said because regulators insist a state official actually must witness a violation before taking action, he has asked IDEM to appoint a regional official, possibly from the local health department, to respond to complaints. So far, IDEM says that's not needed, but officials are at least receptive to the idea. "We would be open to seeking the assistance of local agencies, if we believed it would be helpful," Sneed said.
In 2011 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the mine to place three dust sensors around the property. They were installed in summer 2012. The sensors, both upwind and downwind from the mine, reported potentially unsafe levels of dust more than 150 times in just four months. Armed with the sensor data and after receiving several complaints, the EPA served Peabody with a violation notice in 2013. The mine beefed up its dust control measures around the time the EPA got involved. But a year later, the EPA's enforcement action is still pending.