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.
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