No More “Cap and Run”
After a multi-year campaign calling for the clean-up of coal ash along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion, Illinois’ only National Scenic River, Dynegy Midwest Generation, owner of the coal ash, has finally agreed to move the contaminated material out of the floodplain. This is a huge victory for environmental advocates who have spent years pushing for a cleanup of the dangerous combustion waste produced at the Vermilion Power Station.
Over the course of 56 years, Dynegy and its predecessor, Illinois Power, deposited approximately 3.3 million cubic yards of this waste in three unlined pits adjacent to the river. Coal ash is the toxic waste material remaining after the burning of coal. It contains toxic substances like mercury, arsenic, selenium, cadmium and chromium. When these materials leach into surface and groundwaters, they contaminate drinking water and natural ecosystems. Coal ash pollutants can cause cancer, as well as damage to nervous systems and other organs, especially in children. Coal ash can also harm and kill wildlife, especially fish and other water-dwelling species.
Lawsuit and Interim Order by the Attorney General’s Office
On June 22, 2021, the State of Illinois Attorney General’s Office issued a statement announcing its intention to file a lawsuit against Dynegy for the unlawful pollution of groundwater by coal ash chemicals associated with the site.
The attorney general’s statement also noted that they had filed an interim order, agreed to by Dynegy, that requires the utility to begin addressing the immediate causes of the problem. Dynegy subsequently release the following statement:
“While we believe certain closure alternatives without removal (e.g.: hybrid approach of removing all of the ash from one of the impoundments, placing that ash into other on-site impoundments located further away from the river, and closing the impoundments with a robust cover system) is protective, given the unique nature of the site and to resolve the pending dispute with the State of Illinois, we have agreed to close all of the impoundments by removal.”
A Major Win
For years, Eco-Justice Collaborative and Prairie Rivers Network have called attention to the damaging pollution and the grave threat that the meandering river would erode away the banks adjacent to the ash and release toxic chemicals into the river. The only permanent solution was moving the ash. There have been countless public meetings and town halls organized over the years; resolutions from Vermilion County organizations; a people’s hearing; and a public hearing on a permit on the planned construction of a one-third mile-long wall that would have significantly harmed the river. There have been two notices of violation issued to Dynegy by the Illinois EPA; and lots of organizing, pressuring agencies to push for ash removal rather than allow Dynegy to “cap and run,” leaving its ash for future generations.
In 2018 and 2019, Earthjustice brought still-pending lawsuits on behalf of Prairie Rivers Network—one in federal court, one before the Illinois Pollution Control Board—to demand that Dynegy comply with environmental laws and stop polluting Illinois’s only National Scenic River. Without the relentless advocacy of all three groups and the general public, the Illinois EPA may never have taken action to protect the river and stop the pollution.
What to Expect Next
Over the next few months, Dynegy will begin the planning process for moving the ash. The Interim Order filed by the Attorney General’s Office requires Dynegy to immediately:
- • Begin regular inspections of the riverbank to assess and monitor the status of progressing riverbank erosion adjacent to the coal ash impoundments. Written reports will be submitted to the Illinois EPA.
• Prepare a Safety Emergency Response Plan, identifying specific actions to be taken in the event that it is determined that the coal ash impoundment dams are unsafe and there is a likelihood that a breach of the dams could lead to a discharge of coal ash into the river.
• Prepare plans for the construction of a dewatering trench, to be located between the coal ash impoundments and the river. The trench would serve to intercept contaminated groundwater flowing toward the river.
• Prepare plans for dewatering the existing coal ash impoundments. This may require Dynegy to apply for a modification to its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
• Prepare all reports and analyses necessary to develop a plan for permanently closing the impoundments. Dynegy’s proposal for closure and preliminary supporting documents will be presented to the public on or before December 17, 2021.
We anticipate that the overall closure process will be regulated by the coal ash rules, finalized in April of this year. These rules were developed in response to the 2019 Coal Ash Pollution Prevention Act, sponsored and negotiated by State Senator Scott Bennett. They offer the potential for a public hearing, and require that meaningful public involvement be incorporated into the decision-making process.
A Major Milestone, But It’s Not Over Yet
We’ve reached a major milestone and achieved an important victory. However, there is much more to be done to make certain that Dynegy fulfills its commitments and the closure is completed as proposed. Over the coming months there will be opportunities for public review and comments. One or more of the actions needed for the closure will require permits and approvals from state and federal regulatory agencies. Each agency will have its own jurisdictions, criteria and approval process. Eco-Justice Collaborative will endeavor to provide the public with the necessary information and guidance to effectively engage in these steps.
We’ve come a long way, but continue to need your help. To learn more, and to stay abreast of ways to engage, go to www.ecojusticecollaborative.org or call 773-556-3418.
Pam and Lan Richart are co-directors of Eco-Justice Collaborative, a Champaign-based non-profit that uses education, advocacy and action to address urgent environmental issues, while integrating its work with ongoing struggles for social and economic justice.
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