FRANKLIN COUNTY, IL — Two environmental groups say they plan to sue a southern Illinois mine operator, claiming that the mine violated multiple federal laws when it dumped toxic fire extinguisher foam into the mine in an attempt to put out a fire that has been burning underground for the past two months. 

Sierra Club Illinois and the Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network announced Monday that they've filed an intent to sue Sugar Camp Energy LLC and American Consolidated Natural Resources after 46,000 gallons of fire extinguishing foam was dumped into the underground Sugar Camp coal mine. The mine — which is located in Macedonia, Illinois, in Franklin County — has been burning since mid-August, and the foam was used in an unsuccessful attempt to put it out. 

The nonprofit groups say the foam included at least 660 gallons of concentrated PFAS-based foam. 

The acronym PFAS — short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — refers to a group of man-made chemicals, sometimes referred to as "forever chemicals," that don't break down in the environment and the human body. The Environmental Protection Agency says those chemicals can accumulate over time, and there is evidence that exposure to them can result in negative health effects. Those negative effects can include cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility and other medical conditions. 

Great Rivers Environmental Law Center and Albert Ettinger are representing the nonprofits in the lawsuit, which will claim that the mine violated multiple federal laws when it used the toxic foam. The organizations say the mine violated the Clean Water Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. 

“The use of firefighting foam containing toxic PFAS chemicals at Sugar Camp Mine poses a threat to the public health of the nearby community and the surrounding environment, and Sugar Camp Energy must be held accountable,” Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin said in a statement Monday. “Sugar Camp Energy’s violations of the Clean Water Act, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act are just the latest reminder that Illinois must move beyond coal and transition to a safer, renewable energy future. That future starts with holding coal companies accountable for their actions and protecting communities from further harm.” 

After learning that the toxic foam was used at the mine, the Illinois EPA issued a violation notice to Sugar Camp Energy LLC pursuant to the Illinois Environmental Protection Act, the Southern Illinoisan reports. IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs told the newspaper that the notice accuses the mine of violating multiple provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act and makes recommendations to address the issue. 

The nonprofits say water samples the IEPA collected from nearby surface water locations found PFAS levels higher than EPA health advisory levels, Illinois drinking water health advisory levels, and Illinois draft groundwater standards. They also say the mine's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit does not authorize discharges of any kind into nearby watersheds, and does not allow for the discharge of PFAS or other toxic substances that the nonprofits say were found to be present in nearby watersheds. 

“Sugar Camp Mine discharges to tributaries of Akin Creek and Middle Fork Big Muddy River and to the Akin Creek and Middle Fork Big Muddy River bodies of water directly,” Prairie Rivers Network Water Resources Engineer Andrew Rehn said in a statement. “As Illinois phases out the type of firefighting foam used under the recently passed PFAS Reduction Act, it is critical that we hold polluters accountable when violations occur in order to protect local watersheds and the health of nearby communities.” 

In early October, WFCN News, which covers Williamson and Franklin counties, reported that about 400 employees were out of work as crews continued to try and put the fire out.  The union that represents workers at the mine told the Southern Illinoisan in late October that it was unclear when those employees would be able to return to work.

The Southern Illinoisan reports that Foresight Energy, which owns the mine and others in the region, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2020. Environmental experts have said that the company continued digging for coal even after filing for bankruptcy, even though it allegedly knew the risks involved, the newspaper reports.