- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is considering legal action against the state’s natural resources agency for what prosecutors call a failure to follow the terms of a court-brokered plan to toughen oversight of coal mines.

The tougher regulations were part of broader reforms touted with much fanfare two years by the administration of former Gov. Pat Quinn. They followed criticisms by environmentalists who alleged the state Department of Natural Resources was too cozy with mining companies and other businesses it regulates.

The rules included a requirement that regulators provide earlier citizen notification of new mine applications and that mine permit applicants be available to answer questions at public hearings. But two years later, the new rules have not been enacted, and the resources agency now wants to package the new rules with other pending changes that some environmental groups say actually weaken public participation.

“It is frustrating that the new rules are not yet in place,” said Ann Spillane, Madigan’s chief of staff. “It is past time for the department to stop delaying the implementation of new rules and to fully comply with the court order by allowing meaningful public participation.”

The threat of renewed legal action comes as the coal industry is battling economic and political challenges that threaten many jobs in central and southern Illinois. The DNR is now overseen by the administration of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, a former venture capitalist who defeated Quinn, a Democrat, in 2014 after the new regulations had been announced.

The state has 15 pending requests for new mines, permit revisions or renewals that could be affected by the new requirements, government records show.

The reforms adopted by the DNR in 2014 settled a lawsuit by Madigan, a Democrat, over the agency’s 2007 approval of a surface mine near the central Illinois town of Banner amid resident complaints about potential threats to their water supply. IDNR eventually rejected the permit, but Illinois prosecutors continued to press their case against the agency, resulting in a March 2014 consent agreement in Sangamon County Circuit Court.

The head of the DNR at the time 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.”

Since then, the Illinois Coal Association has petitioned the DNR to revise the so-called Banner rules to better address industry concerns- including a change that would only allow state hearing officers, not citizens, to question mine applicants at public hearings.

Coal association president Phil Gonet says the Banner rule did not take the industry’s concerns into account, arguing that the settlement was politically motivated during Quinn’s re-election bid. The incumbent governor earned the endorsement of environmentalists during his campaign after the reforms were announced.

“The agreed order was developed without any input from the staff at IDNR that actually work on coal mine permits,” Gonet said. “We believe these regulations go far beyond what’s required (under federal law).”

IDNR spokesman Chris Young said that efficiency is behind the pace of the agency’s rule-making efforts, not any industry-led effort to obstruct them.

Young said the agency sought guidance on the rules from the federal Office of Surface Mining, which responded in February 2015 that it “found nothing of concern.” IDNR also sought additional input from the coal industry, environmentalists and other interested parties on not only the Banner rules but three other sets of administrative changes.

He said that both the federal government and the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which still must approve the final revisions, “would prefer the changes be considered together as one package.” But Vicki Thomas, the legislative committee’s executive director, said that “none of us have had that conversation” with the natural resources department.

Young did not respond to an AP request to interview officials in IDNR’s land reclamation division, which oversees coal mines, or agency director Wayne Rosenthal, a farmer and former Republican legislator appointed by Rauner to lead the agency in January 2015.

A Rauner spokeswoman on Sunday said the natural resources agency is working “diligently” on the rules as it awaits a “final review” from the federal government.

The consent agreement did not stipulate a deadline to adopt the changes. But Sierra Club activist Joyce Blumenshine accused the state agency of “holding these rules hostage.”

Former assistant attorney general Thomas Davis, who led the Banner rule negotiations before his 2014 retirement, attributed the agency’s “foot-dragging” to what he called its dissatisfaction with both the prolonged legal fight and the terms of the settlement.

“My perception is the department wasn’t real happy to have to do this in the first place,” he said.

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at http://twitter.com/azagier

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