Agency aims to alter coal defender image

ST. LOUIS (AP) – The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, often criticized as advocating for the coal industry, announced a series of reforms this week meant to help repair the agency’s image and make it more responsive to the public.

The changes – from closer inspection of coal-ash ponds to better communication with the public to strengthening ethics rules – underscore the daunting task of balancing environmentalists’ concerns about an energy source they view with disfavor and fairly treating coal producers in a state that’s among the nation’s richest in energy reserves.

But they also come as the agency deals with other embarrassing missteps, including a department administrator’s departure after reports he attended professional fishing tournaments while on sick leave and revelations that two mine-safety regulators accepted political contributions from a coal-mine operator. Last week, The Associated Press reported another official had to repay $7,200 that he overcharged the state for mileage.

Neither environmentalists nor the industry believe the reforms are tied to Gov. Pat Quinn’s re-election bid against a well-funded Republican opponent. But the timing doesn’t hurt him, either, said David Yepsen of Southern Illinois University’s Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

“Pat Quinn came into office as a reformer, so any hint of problems undermines his public image. So it’s good they’re to trying to clean up their act,” said Yepsen, who credited Quinn’ with recognizing “the DNR clearly has problems.”

Still, “it’s a long way to the November election, and it’s important that Quinn and his administration get back on track and get this issue off the table.”

Quinn’s office, in a statement Friday to the AP, said the governor “is pleased with the new and important steps being taken to strengthen accountability and transparency at the agency ... (and) believes it’s important to constantly review and improve agency operations and always act promptly to take immediate and appropriate action whenever issues arise.”

Environmentalists and community activists welcomed the changes, some of which were prompted by a lawsuit that Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed against the DNR after it approved a surface mine near the tiny Fulton County village of Banner in 2007, despite complaints from residents about potential threats to their water supply. The DNR ultimately rejected the permit in 2012.

The DNR now will notify the public when it first receives coal-mining applications, require early environmental review and require applicants to participate in public hearings. It also will increase inspections of coal-ash ponds in the wake of high-profile accidents that fouled waterways in West Virginia and North Carolina — which industry and environmentalists both welcomed — and implement other reforms in the division that oversees mining and oil and gas exploration.

Marc Miller, the DNR’s chief since 2009, called the reforms “the most recent steps to further restore the integrity of this agency and allow for more public participation as we work towards becoming a national model for transparency.”

Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club, called the changes “substantial first steps” in showing the DNR advocates for citizens rather than “big coal companies that clearly have the state’s countryside in their sights.”

“People have been fighting for their farms, livelihoods and their water supplies. It’s one thing to fight a multinational coal company that wants to destroy the farm, but they shouldn’t feel like they’re fighting the state,” Darin said.

But Phil Gonet, who heads the Illinois Coal Association, said the changes could hurt a coal company’s efforts to get a permit and spur some to consider moving their operations into neighboring states deemed more regulatory friendly. Illinois was the fifth largest producer of coal among the states in 2013 after Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, according to Energy Information Administration.

“The Sierra Club has a goal — to put coal out of business,” Gonet said. “These new procedures are just one more sign that Illinois is showing the outside world it’s tough to do business in Illinois.”

Sue Smith, whose family raises crops and livestock in Vermilion County and opposes a proposed coal mine there, said she hopes the DNR follows through with the changes.

“I am opposed to what I perceive to be poor regulation of an industry,” she said. Until the changes are implemented, “I’m very much opposed to coal mines.”

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Webber reported from Chicago.