LOCKPORT, ILL. – More than 20 years ago, Ellen Rendulich was considering a move from the Chicago suburb of Brookfield to a rural patch of Lockport, Ill. She found the wooded area near the historic canal town beautiful and peaceful. She heard there was a coal plant nearby, but didn’t think it was anything to worry about.
If she knew then what she knows now, Rendulich said a few weeks before Christmas in her living room decorated with pine boughs, fluffy faux snow and holiday figurines, she would not have moved in.
Rendulich bought her Lockport house in 1990. A few years later, she was one of five founding members of the group now called Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (CARE). (CARE is currently co-directed by three of its founding members: Rendulich, Mary Burnitz, and Carol Stark.) The original impetus for the group were plans – defeated, likely thanks in part to CARE’s efforts – to build a waste-to-energy incinerator nearby. Since then, CARE has focused on the coal plants, oil refineries, chemical plants and other environmental threats in Lockport and adjacent towns in Will County, about 40 miles southwest of Chicago.
“The more you learn, the more upset you get,” said Rendulich, director of CARE.
Coal Ash Contamination
One of their biggest concerns is the Will County Generating Station coal plant, owned by the company Midwest Generation, about a mile from Rendulich's and Burnitz's homes. Midwest Generation also runs a coal plant about 10 miles away in Joliet and two others in Illinois. The plants emit particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants dangerous to public health. And in ponds on-site, they store coal ash – the residue from burning coal to generate electricity. Coal ash, which can include “scrubber sludge” that collects in pollution removal equipment, contains high levels of toxic metals, salts and chemicals that can contaminate rivers, lakes and groundwater, including drinking water. People can also suffer serious health effects from inhaling airborne coal ash.
Coal ash is often stored in impoundments or ponds at or near power plants. Impoundment dams can leak or break and cause toxic flooding, as infamously happened near Kingston, Tenn., just before Christmas in 2008. Coal ash is also stored in landfills and pits that can leach contaminants into groundwater.
Midwest Generation stores coal ash in four ponds at its Will County plant; in three ponds by the Des Plaines River near the Joliet plant; and in an old limestone quarry adjacent to the Joliet plant. Midwest Generation spokesman Doug McFarlan noted that coal ash is temporarily stored in the ponds before being dredged and transported to landfills or sold for reuse. Coal ash is a major component of concrete and other materials, including asphalt and the counters, roofing shingles and bricks of homes. In 2008, almost half of the 136 million tons of coal ash generated nationwide was reused in such ways, according to the American Coal Ash Association. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that coal ash bound in such inert materials does not pose a health risk. But in the air and water, it is a different story.
Midwest Generation’s own data indicate that contaminants are leaking out of the coal ash ponds in Will County and Joliet and also at its plants in Waukegan and Pekin, Ill., according to a complaint filed in October 2012 before the Illinois Pollution Control Board by CARE, the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), Prairie Rivers Network (PRN) and Sierra Club.
Monitoring wells installed in 2010 showed that groundwater near the Joliet and Will County plants exceeded state standards for contaminants, including antimony, boron, chloride, iron, manganese and sulfate. McFarlan said the pollution control board complaint is based on Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleged violations that the company is in the process of resolving, and the company has filed a request for the pollution control board complaint to be dismissed.
Illinois Rife With Coal Ash
A 2011 report by the PRN and Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) notes that Illinois has the second most sites contaminated by coal ash in the country, and that Illinois EPA data shows groundwater contamination exceeding health standards at all 22 coal ash-related sites the agency monitored. In 2009, Gov. Pat Quinn ordered the Illinois EPA to investigate coal ash impoundments, and the agency found that two-thirds were unlined and in most cases there was no monitoring of nearby groundwater. Most of the Midwest Generation ponds are lined.
In most cases, the dams holding back the impoundments were also unregulated and not subject to government safety inspections. In summer 2012, Illinois EPA charged that contaminants were leaking from coal ash storage at coal plants run by Midwest Generation, Ameren and Dynegy.
“In spite of years of documentation demonstrating that coal ash is polluting groundwater in communities across the state, Illinois regulators have done little to prevent or correct these ongoing problems,” says the PRN-EIP report. “Residents and regulators are quite likely to find more contaminated groundwater, including groundwater used as drinking water, as they investigate more unlined coal ash disposal sites that have been operating for decades with no requirements to monitor or protect underlying groundwater.”
Like many of her neighbors, Rendulich gets her tap water from a private well on her property. Water quality in private wells is the responsibility of the homeowner, and there are no government testing programs for the kind of contaminants that could migrate into groundwater from coal ash.
There are 94 private wells within a mile radius of the Lincoln quarry, the old limestone quarry where Midwest Generation stores coal ash next to its Joliet plant. In 2005, the Illinois EPA found high levels of ammonia, arsenic, barium, boron, chloride, copper, fluoride, molybdenum, nitrates, sodium and sulfate had migrated from the quarry.
Deacon Billy Davis heads the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Joliet about a mile from the Lincoln quarry. He worries about his parishioners who live on the surrounding blocks. Many of them drink their tap water and hope for the best, figuring it is too expensive to buy bottled water or test their wells. In recent years, Midwest Generation paid for testing at some homes near the quarry and said they found no problems, and the company has paid to dig new, deeper wells for some residents as a precaution. (The Lincoln quarry is not named in the pollution control board complaint, which alleges that contaminants have leaked from the Joliet plant’s coal ash ponds on the other side of the Des Plaines River.)
“We want to make sure they are using the right liners and not dumping the coal ash in just any kind of way,” Davis said. “And we are asking that the EPA monitor them on a regular basis to see they are doing so. It’s hard for a citizen to be able to follow up with these big companies – that’s why we’re asking the people in office that we rely on.”
ELPC Staff Attorney Jenny Cassel said contamination from Midwest Generation’s coal ash ponds is a concern both for current residents and future development, since coal ash ponds can leak pollutants for decades. She said the company should cease storing coal ash in depositories like the Lincoln quarry that fill with water, and instead undertake “zero liquid discharge” disposal “so the ash is never in a place where water pollution is a possibility.” The pollution control board complaint demands that Midwest Generation stop polluting groundwater, that the groundwater be remediated and that the company pay civil penalties. McFarlan noted that the company has entered agreements with the Illinois EPA to do additional groundwater monitoring and replace liners at some ponds.
CARE member Sandy Burcenski wants to see more action. “That’s fine to sit there and monitor, but now do something about it,” she said.
A National Issue
Coal ash is a problem around the country, with more than 100 examples of groundwater contamination from coal ash documented nationwide in recent years. A 2010 report by the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project counted Midwest Generation’s Joliet plant among 39 sites nationwide where coal ash was found to have contaminated groundwater. The US E.P.A. has also noted contamination at 67 other coal ash sites.
The PRN-EIP report notes that coal ash from a closed Dynegy power plant in central Illinois is leaking into the Vermilion River, Illinois’s only National Scenic River; and coal ash from other power plants and a corn mill that burned coal for power are causing contamination in other parts of the state. Coal ash is also stored at downstate Illinois coal mines, including Springfield Coal Company’s Industry Mine and Peabody’s Gateway Mine. In both cases, the report says there are not adequate berms or controls to prevent coal ash from running off during rains or blowing in the wind.
Environmental and community groups have for years been pushing the federal government to label coal ash a hazardous waste and impose stricter disposal requirements. Rendulich and other CARE members have met with legislators in Washington and testified at hearings that stretched late into the night in Chicago in September 2010, part of a national series of hearings around proposals to designate coal ash as hazardous. The U.S. EPA still has not acted on the issue.
Environmental groups say that a federal hazardous waste designation would greatly reduce the potential for water contamination from coal ash, since it would require much more stringent storage guidelines – including requiring liners and phasing out above-ground ponds. Opponents of such a designation – including the coal and concrete industries – say that a hazardous designation is not necessary and would actually increase the amount of coal ash needing to be stored nationwide, since they think it would make it harder to sell for reuse.
Hard Times for Coal Plants
Coal companies’ strident opposition to a coal ash hazardous waste designation is surely bolstered by the fact that they are in dire economic straits because of competition from cheap natural gas and federal mandates to install pollution controls in the next few years. On a Nov. 1, 2012, shareholder call, Edison International officials announced that their subsidiary Edison Mission Energy, Midwest Generation’s parent company, was facing potential bankruptcy if a deal with creditors was not worked out by mid-December. Midwest Generation closed its Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants in Chicago in August 2012, and their financial prospectus indicated further closures were likely among their remaining four Illinois plants.
Standing on a bridge overlooking the Will County plant in December, Burcenski noted that the still-towering piles of coal were much lower than they used to be, since coal used to be staged there for transport on barges up the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal to the Chicago plants.
Rendulich, Burnitz and Burcenski said they would be thrilled to see the Will County or Joliet coal plants closed, but a bankruptcy would make them even more concerned about the future of the coal ash.
“No one knows what will happen now, if they will just walk away and the taxpayers have to clean it up,” Rendulich said.
When asked about the fate of the coal ash ponds if Midwest Generation were to go into bankruptcy, McFarlan said: “If Midwest Generation makes a chapter 11 filing, we fully expect to maintain our normal operations while we undergo a financial restructuring that will strengthen our business for the long run.”
Rendulich worries about the workers who will be laid off if the coal plants close, and she wishes that Midwest Generation would be ordered to train them for jobs in coal ash remediation.
“They’ve profited from these plants, now they should take responsibility,” she said.