- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

BENLD, Ill. (AP) - It’s been more than 60 years since the last coal mine closed in the south-central Illinois town of Benld, but its legacy is found in the name of its high school teams - the Miners- and its economic development promoting arm, the Coal County Chamber of Commerce.

The long-dormant mines also rear their heads at random intervals, causing cave-ins that have damaged dozens of homes and led to the demolition of a nearly new elementary school in 2009. The budget to repair city services after cave-ins, such as a municipal water line that burst when the sinking ground damaged foundations at 15 homes one year ago, in this 1,500-person town is slim.

So, when an environmental group came to town to pitch a severance tax on coal mined in Illinois that could potentially raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually for the cash-strapped state (and funnel some to Benld), Mayor Gloria Sidar and colleagues were eager to listen.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing actually to ask somebody to pay a tax that would then go into a fund to help alleviate some of these problems,” she said.

Illinois is one of just three coal-producing states that doesn’t collect excise taxes on fossil fuels that are extracted, or severed, from the ground, including oil and natural gas. However, the proposal would need to overcome likely vociferous opposition from the struggling coal industry and also require legislative approval at a time Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic leaders haven’t reached an agreement on a budget for the current fiscal year.

Organizers said they are working to line up legislative sponsors for 2017 rather than push lawmakers during an election year to support a 5 percent tax hike on the gross value of the nearly 58 million tons produced by coal companies in Illinois in 2014. They’re also taking their message to former and current coal communities, like Benld in Macoupin County, about 50 miles northeast of St. Louis, Missouri; Canton, which is near Peoria; and West Frankfort near the southern tip of the state.

The tax could have raised $141 million last year alone, and eventually more than $200 million annually as the state’s coal output is expected to increase, according to research conducted on behalf of the environmental nonprofit group, Community Futures Initiative.

The money would be funneled evenly to three sources: the state’s general revenue fund; a permanent mineral trust fund to pay for future public services beyond the shelf life of mines - beneficial for places like Benld; and coal-producing communities.

“Coal companies that mine here in Illinois are extracting the state’s wealth,” said Champaign environmental activist Pam Richart, a leader of the initiative. Most of the energy generated in Prairie State relies upon coal shipped from elsewhere, according to federal statistics, while roughly 80 percent of the high-sulphur coal mined here is sent out of state, including overseas markets.

Illinois coal officials contend that any new tax could further weaken the already-reeling industry. Last week, St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, which is the nation’s largest coal miner and operates three mines in southern Illinois, filed for bankruptcy protection.

“An increase in costs, such as a severance tax, will obviously make our companies less competitive, said Illinois Coal Association President Phil Gonet, who also dismissed the impact of a severance tax on state finances as minimal.

The conversation isn’t a new one. A similar proposal failed to pass the state House by one vote in 1984, according to the (Carbondale) Southern Illinoisan. More recently, former Gov. Pat Quinn’s administration considered the prospect.

The Benld City Council is on board with the tax proposal, voting unanimously Monday to endorse a symbolic resolution in favor of it. Sidar and her City Council colleagues have more modest, but no less pressing, budget concerns: emergency repairs due to cave-ins.

“As these mines age, and the tops and pillars start to give … other communities are going to have these same problems,” said Sidar, 65, a retired junior high teacher whose late husband worked at a coal mine in nearby Carlinville. Her home was among the damaged structures last year. “You’re sitting on a bomb, waiting for the fuse (to go off).”

___

Online:

Community Futures Initiative, www.reinvestil.org

___

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

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide