Protecting the integrity of our natural resources requires multigenerational vigilance, perseverance and dedication. Successes are rarely quick and easy, and generally only mark milestones in an unending quest to preserve what we hold dear. Such is the story of the mission to protect the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois’s only National Scenic River.
Previous attempts to dam or alter the river were met with strong public opposition and ultimately failed. Today we are again in the midst of a campaign to protect the river, this time from coal ash, a toxic byproduct of decades of coal combustion for power generation at the Vermilion Power Station. The power plant closed in 2011, but Dynegy Midwest Generation, the current owner of the property, now wants to cap and leave behind 3.3 million cubic yards of ash in three unlined pits immediately adjacent to the river. The river threatens to breach the berm holding the ash and coal ash pollutants are leaking into the river.
The recent passage of a statewide coal ash bill is a positive step in a continuing saga. On August 30 of this year, Governor Pritzker signed Senate Bill 9, the Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act. SB 9 marked an important victory for those throughout Illinois who live near one of more than 80 coal ash waste impoundments that threaten groundwater and surface water for tens of thousands of Illinois residents. Thanks to the efforts of lead sponsor Senator Scott Bennett, House sponsor Representative Carol Ammons and chief cosponsor Representative Mike Marron, Illinois will become one of only a few states in the U.S. to develop rules for regulating the construction, operation and closure of coal ash waste impoundments.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) now has until the end of April, 2020 to present a draft rule for consideration by the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB). The IPCB then has 12 months to approve and adopt the rule. The rule must then be approved by the Joint Committee on Legislative Rules (JCAR), a commission consisting of twelve legislators equally representing both houses of the General Assembly and both parties within those houses.
What Does SB 9 Mean for the Middle Fork?
So how will SB 9 affect the campaign to clean up the coal ash along the Middle Fork? In June of 2018, the IEPA issued a Notice of Violation to Dynegy Midwest Generation, the owner of the leaking coal ash pits, alleging the discharge of coal ash pollutants into the river. The IEPA has referred the case to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office for enforcement. The referral requests three elements: 1) a plan for final closure of Dynegy’s three coal ash impoundments; 2) a plan for stabilizing the river bank adjacent to the coal ash pits that has been permitted by applicable state and federal agencies; and 3) an administrative fine for the violation. While the timing of a potential settlement with the Attorney General’s office is uncertain with respect to the rulemaking process, SB 9 is clear in its mandate that any plan for closure of a coal ash impoundment must consider all options, including complete removal of the ash; must provide financial guarantees covering both the closure and post-closure care of the facility; and must include meaningful public participation. These are three critical objectives that have been at the center of the ongoing campaign to protect the Middle Fork.
The Fight Continues
The passage of SB 9 is an important victory for the Middle Fork Coal Ash Campaign, but it does not guarantee that Dynegy’s toxic coal ash waste will be removed from the floodplain, nor that taxpayers will avoid the long-term environmental and financial liabilities of maintaining the coal ash facilities and the bank stabilization that separates the ash from the river.
Organizations such as Eco-Justice Collaborative and Prairie Rivers Network will continue to work to inform elected leaders and the general public about coal ash, monitor Dynegy’s proposals for the handling their waste, and press for regulatory agencies to require a solution that will not leave behind an environmental and financial liability for future residents. With the help and support of hundreds of local residents and local organizations, the campaign has played an important role in forcing Dynegy to fully examine closure alternatives, including removal of the ash. It has stopped a massive river bank stabilization plan that would have had significant negative impact on the river. It has encouraged transparency and facilitated public involvement in the agency decision-making process, and, most recently, led local legislators to propose coal ash regulations on a statewide basis. This campaign will continue.
Status of River Bank Stabilization Plans
Dynegy’s ill-advised proposal to install over 20,000 cubic yards of riprap (human-placed rock) over 2,000 linear feet of the river along the coal ash pits was soundly rejected, thanks to overwhelming grassroots opposition and due consideration by both the National Parks Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. After a March, 2019 public hearing held by the IEPA and attended by nearly 300 people, Dynegy withdrew its request for Section 401 Water Quality Certification of the project. Dynegy has recently given notice to the Corps that it also intends to withdraw its Section 404 permit application. The company is now working with a new engineering team to develop a less intrusive bank stabilization plan. Even if Dynegy is required to remove its ash, interim bank stabilization will be required.
The Role of Public Involvement
Public involvement and support has been essential to the success of the coal ash campaign thus far. In the coming months there will be multiple opportunities for people to speak out, as coal ash rules are developed, as agencies review permit requests for revised bank stabilization plans, and as the IEPA and Attorney General’s office seek a settlement on Dynegy’s impoundment closure. The Middle Fork Coal Ash Campaign has shown that individuals can make a difference when they choose to organize.
Over the years, many hands have helped defend the river from external threats that would have altered its beauty and natural function. Today we continue to build on that legacy and call on those who value this resource to help ensure that it remains intact for future generations.
For information on how you can stay informed and/or become involved in the campaign, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 773-556-3417.
Lan Richart is Co-director of Eco-Justice Collaborative, an environmental non-profit located in Champaign, Illinois. www.ecojusticecollaborative.org