Is Illinois at risk for the next coal ash disaster?
Is Illinois at risk for the next coal ash disaster?
Hannah Dhue, Mike Kistner and Tia Patsavas - Illinois

On Feb. 2, a storage site filled with coal ash – a byproduct of burning coal that contains toxic chemicals – burst into the Dan River, contaminating over 70 miles of waterway with 30,000 tons of coal ash in North Carolina and Virginia. Pictures of sludge-covered hands and lines of closed stores have been all over the news for the past three months, leading many Illinoisans to think about the risks of coal ash in their own communities.

The station in North Carolina, like all coal plants, had to find a place to store its waste, which contains toxins like lead, mercury and arsenic. Ash is stored in “ponds” – or, pits – that  typically reside next to the coal plant. There are over 600 such ponds located across the U.S.

With 91 coal ash ponds across Illinois and 21 known contaminated areas, is the state at risk for the next coal ash disaster?


Coal Ash Contamination in Illinois

One such risk may be in Oakwood, Ill. “Last summer I noticed that a bright orange liquid seeped directly into the river,” said Eileen Borgia, a naturalist who kayaks often in the Vermillion River. “That's when I learned that deadly coal contaminants stored in an unlined pit were leaching into the only river in Illinois designated as a National Wild and Scenic River by the U.S. Department of the Interior.”

Local Tod Satterthwaite, owner of the Kickapoo Landing boat rental service, is concerned about the threat posed by the inactive Dynegy-owned plant.

“This state park is really the only place our citizens have for recreation. What will happen if the river becomes so contaminated that it’s too dangerous for them to use at all?” Satterthwaite said.

According to Sierra Club Clean Water Advocate Cindy Skrukrud, Illinois has been monitoring its sites since 2008, after the largest spill in U.S. history took place in Tennessee. In response, then-lieutenant governor Pat Quinn ordered the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to more closely inspect and regulate the risks of groundwater contamination.

“At every place they are collecting data, they’re finding some groundwater contamination,” Skrukrud said.


Coal Ash Contamination Risks

Contamination leaking from coal ash ponds poses a serious risk. According to a physician’s report compiled by the non-profit Earthjustice, many potentially dangerous contaminants are present in coal ash. Mercury is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, infants and children. Other contaminants can cause afflictions ranging from asthma to more serious issues such as developmental defects, nervous system damage, cardiovascular issues and several types of cancer.

When contamination sites close to wells become highly concentrated, the results can be devastating. In 1975, a family and their sheep herd drank from a well on their own property in Waterflow, N.M., and reported becoming gradually ill. As it turned out, the neighboring power plant was using unlined drop sites, contaminating the groundwater and streams where the sheep grazed. The owner of the property, R.G. Hunt, was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning.

“I lost nearly 100 pounds in less than a year,” Hunt said. “I was so weak I couldn’t stand or work, and wasn’t expected to live.” His family also experienced symptoms like losing hair and eyesight, nausea, vomiting and problems with mental focus and comprehension. The Hunts lost their entire sheep herd – more than 1,400 animals – to poisoning, a significant financial blow.

It was not until they were forced to switch to bottled water that the Hunt family saw improvements in their health. Yet, the EPA was not able to force the power plant to line their ponds until 1984 – nine years after the Hunts were affected by the contaminants. In 2009, Hunt testified to Congress: “My experience is that the energy industry cannot be entrusted with innocent lives or to regulate themselves, for the good of the community, in lieu of a profit for their stockholders. I urge you to take every measure available to you to prevent this from happening to anyone, anywhere in our nation, ever again.”


What Illinois Coal Plant Owners Are Doing

In the Chicagoland area, Midwest Generation owns several of the contaminated locations. Midwest Generation recently filed for bankruptcy and, in March 2014, the New Jersey- and Texas-based company NRG Energy received court approval to purchase Midwest Generation from its parent company, Edison Mission Energy (EME). The deal closed on Apr. 1, making NRG the second largest U.S. power company and third largest U.S.-based renewable energy generator. The purchase includes four operating coal plants in Joliet, Will County, Pekin and Waukegan, Ill., as well as two additional Chicago plants that have already been shut down.

Reports by the U.S. EPA and IEPA revealed that there were dangerous chemicals in the groundwater supply near the Waukegan, Joliet and Romeoville plants.

Many of these problems may be attributed the pond’s linings. Of the 91 ponds at power plants throughout Illinois, only one-third are lined with materials that would help prevent groundwater contamination and even fewer have groundwater monitoring systems.

 “I understand Midwest Gen has represented that almost all of the ponds at Joliet, Will County, Waukegan and Pekin are lined,” said Faith Bugel, senior attorney with the non-profit Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC). “Despite those linings, the ponds are still causing groundwater contamination. The most obvious explanation is that the linings failed.”

The degree of risk associated with these sites depends on their location. At some sites, like Chicago's Crawford station, the risk is lower because there are no public wells within the proximity of the groundwater below the site. 

But in Joliet, the proximity of wells near the coal ash sites may be a problem. According to a study by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and Sierra Club, 94 private drinking water wells existed within a one-mile radius of the Joliet 9 station, and citizens are concerned are that contamination will be pulled into the private wells. Though there is no evidence of groundwater contamination at the well sites at the present time, a significant threat exists for residents who depend on those wells.

A representative from the Joliet Department of Public Works could not be reached for comment.

Despite the Midwest Generation buyout, citizens filed complaints with the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) after polluted groundwater was discovered at the Waukegan plant. The ELPC, Sierra Club, Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (CARE) and Prairie Rivers Network (PRN) filed a lawsuit on Oct. 3, 2012, that is still working its way through the court system.

Though NRG’s plans for the Chicagoland plants have yet to be announced, upgrading the plants to comply with current and future environmental regulations would be costly. The company’s history with other power plants may indicate a willingness to convert older power plants into relatively cleaner facilities. In February, the company resolved to convert an aging coal plant in Avon Lake, Ohio, to a cleaner-burning natural gas plant. 

NRG indicated that the decision-making concerning the plants was in progress. “We’re still evaluating the situation and identifying our options for each plant and unit … We’ll look at each former Midwest Generation plant individually and make a decision based on the merits,” said David Gaier, director, communications and spokesman for NRG East Region and NRG Energy Centers.


Proposed Coal Ash Rules Controversial

Hearings are underway before the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) to consider new rules regarding coal ash ponds.

According to Illinois EPA Special Programs Coordinator Kim Biggs, the proposed policy would more effectively monitor the coal ash ponds and the water quality around them, create a set procedure for accidents, and close any plants that do not meet the standards. But ELPC, Sierra Club and other environmental groups say those rules don’t go far enough to protect public health and the environment.

“The Illinois EPA’s proposed rules fall short in a number of ways,” said ELPC Staff Attorney Andrew Armstrong. “They allow existing unlined ponds to remain open indefinitely, even if they are already contaminating the groundwater. They don’t adequately monitor the pits’ structural integrity, which is what led to a catastrophic failure in North Carolina last year. That is unacceptable.”

Armstrong added that the proposed rules also don’t require companies to retain enough financial insurance to safely close pits when they fail.

According to Biggs, the agency aims to work with power plant owners on the policy-making process and any necessary corrective action. “Under the proposed rule, coal plant owners would have options when groundwater contamination exceeded limits,” she said.

Residents in Central Illinois, where many pits are located, say that’s not good enough.

At a February 2014 IPCB hearing in Canton, Ill., citizens referred to birth defect cases linked to contaminants and expressed concern that the Edwards Power Plant in Bartonville, Ill., was contaminating groundwater in the surrounding area.

Christine Favilla attended the hearing to represent the Sierra Club and the Three Rivers Project of Madison, Jersey and Calhoun counties. “We are gravely concerned about heavy metals like lead, manganese and arsenic in the coal ash because they cause cancer and brain damage,” she said.

From Montgomery County, Katherine Edmiston came representing Citizens Against Longwell Mining and urged lawmakers: “These changes have got to happen. For my daughter and all other asthmatics … we’ve got to make these changes.”

In her statement to the IEPA, Borgia spoke on behalf of her fellow residents’ concern for the Vermillion River: “You have the authority to stop this illegal and wanton disregard for the health of wildlife, waterfowl, fish and human beings who depend on the river for a healthful existence. Clear rules must be written and strictly enforced so that Dynegy and all corporations act responsibly to clean up after abusing land and contaminating irreplaceable water sources throughout Illinois.” 


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