The Williamson County Board conducted a public hearing Tuesday with testimony provided by both proponents and opponents of an energy park project initiated by the Marion-based Steelhead Development Co.
Steelhead, with the financial backing of parent company Cline Resources and Development in West Virginia, has plans to develop the Southern Illinois Clean Energy Center, which will be a coal gasification-based electric generation and substitute natural gas facility. It would be located northeast of Johnston City near the Williamson-Franklin county line.
Projected to provide more than 300 jobs ultimately, construction on the coal mine (Phase 1) is set to begin this July with initial production set for next year. Phase two, which includes a power plant, is on the books to be in operation by 2008. Phase 3, or the Synthetic Gas facility, would open for business in either 2008 or 2009.
Altogether, the company is projected to invest $1.4 billion into the project.
Proponents of the project at the hearing included Johnston City Mayor Vernon Kee, Operating Engineers business manager Wes Cook and Assistant Director for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Larry Woolard. All argued that the operation of a coal company will provide job opportunities and revitalize the area.
Opponents were Earl Ray and Merlena Eberhardt of Johnston City, their attorney James Bleyer, Marion attorney Steve Green and Johnston City resident Donald Eberhart.
Both Eberhart and the Eberhardts own property that Steelhead wants to purchase to gain access to rail transportation of the coal that will be mined in the county.
Earl Ray Eberhardt is less than excited about the company's proposal and repeatedly told the board about it.
"I've been harassed the last four years over this railroad bed," Eberhardt said. "I'm about ready to call it torture. I am planning to keep the property."
The county board, however, has the right to take control of and sell Eberhardt's property for public use, a legal process known as eminent domain.
Bleyer said the establishment of a new coal plant is "wonderful," but believes that purchasing the property is premature.
"You're talking about condemning the land before anything's been done (by the coal company). Isn't that getting the cart ahead of the horse?"
"This is a real investment in the community," Woolard said. "You're talking about five-million-plus tons of coal mined a year here and eventually a synthetic natural gas plant with more than 300 jobs and a $33 million cash injection into this county alone."
Woolard said he supports the project wholeheartedly.
"I encourage and support you (commissioners) to stand with the company on this," Woolard said. "We don't see these kinds of job opportunities very often. That's over 300 families that could be impacted by the establishment of quality jobs in this county. The coal industry is in a regeneration mode right now. Mines are opening all over the state."
Jim Morris, vice president for Steelhead, said mine construction plans remain on schedule and added that he believes the company has "been more than fair" in its financial offer to the Eberhardts, reportedly 10 times the assessed value of the property.
County board member Robert Barnett said everyone who runs for public office has the desire to create jobs and enhance economic opportunities for the region.
"This is an excellent opportunity that will affect much more than Williamson County," Barnett said. "I have a lot of sympathy for the Eberhardt family, but as hard as a decision as this is to make, we must make it for the good of the many even if it hurts a few because we would like to see our area grow and prosper."
Cook said Southern Illinois is economically deprived and the opening of a new coal mine would be a major shot in the arm.
"The company has shown an interest in using local union workers and we need the work bad. The company is investing a substantial amount of money and we appreciate that," Cook said.
Kee said he has known the Eberhardts for decades and considers them friends, but as mayor of Johnston City, feels obligated to the citizenry as a whole to do the right thing, which he said is supporting the Steelhead project.
"Even though the railroad bed does not run through Johnston City, the future benefits we will derive will be tremendous - not only today but for years to come."
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