Kicking Coal’s Ash

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COAL. OUR JOURNEY TO MODERNITY started with it, the oldest
of our industrial fuels. It feels like something we’ve left
behind a long time ago— most of us have much more personal
experience with the other fossil fuels like oil and natural
gas. However, coal is still the source of most American
electricity. The entire cycle of using coal, from extraction
to combustion, is dirty and dangerous. But what is left
after combustion has been ignored for too long and poses
a serious threat to water quality in communities in this
area and around the country.
Controls at coal plants—scrubbers, baghouses, and other
installations, have succeeded in reducing airborne emissions
of sulfur, mercury, and other heavy metals. But these contaminants
must go somewhere, and as a result of “cleaner”
methods of burning coal, they arise in coal ash- the sludge
and ash that remains after coal is burned —in great concentrations.
Coal ash is the second largest stream of industrial
waste generated in the US, second only to mining waste.
Coal ash can contain levels of mercury, barium, chromium,
and selenium that exceed by 100 times the federal thresholds
for hazardous waste, yet it is no more carefully regulated
than household garbage. Power plants have the latitude to
dump it into retention ponds, unlined landfills, or back into
the mine of origin, as Abbott Power Plant on campus does.
As soon as ash is disposed of through these means, the health
and safety of the surrounding area is at stake.
Once the ash comes into contact with water, it reacts to
release toxic contaminants, jeopardizing groundwater and
wells. At least three sites in the Champaign area—the
Greys Siding neighborhood in Vermilion County, the Dynergy
Vermilion Station plant near Oakwood, and the
Ameren Hutsonville Power Station in Crawford County—
have experienced water contamination as a result of coal
ash dumps. Residents of the Greys Siding neighborhood
have been informed by the Illinois Environmental Protection
Agency that their well water is unsafe to drink, but no
alternative has been provided. The owner of the site has
declared bankruptcy, so if remediation ever does occur, it
will be at taxpayers’ expense.
The impacts are just as devastating as the consequences
of air pollution from coal. It turns productive farmland into
unusable wetlands, leaches coal toxins into groundwater,
poisons wells, fish and wildlife, destroys infrastructure
such as roads and houses, and more. In most
of these cases, coal companies promise to fix
the problem and rarely do. Drainage from
Greys Siding and the Vermilion Station site are
also contaminating the Middle Fork of the
Vermilion River, the only body of water in Illinois
protected by the federal government as a
Wild and Scenic River. Coal ash poses a serious
threat to human health, water ecosystems,
and our leisure. In 2007, one of the worst
environmental disasters in US history took
place when one of these coal ash impoundments
failed, covering some 400 acres in Tennessee
with several feet of toxic sludge, and
adding another entry to the Superfund list. 30
such coal ash impoundments exist in Illinois,
several considered high risk by the USEPA.
The US Environmental Protection Agency
is in the process of confronting that threat by
issuing a proposed rule that would regulate
coal ash as hazardous waste. These federal
regulations are critical as our own IEPA is far
too close to Big Coal. But intense pressure
from the coal lobby and the Office of Management
and Budget led the US EPA to release
two alternatives: one that would create the
necessary safeguards, and one that would
merely establish watered-down “guidelines”
that would be unenforceable by EPA and that
states would have the “choice” to adopt. This
summer, the Sierra Club and our own Prairie
Rivers Network are organizing a response to
seek strong regulations. Hearings are being
held across the country to solicit public input,
including one in Chicago on September 16th.
The hearing presents an excellent opportunity
for concerned or affected citizens to speak up
directly about their experiences. Contact Traci
Barkley of Prairie Rivers Network at if you are interested
in attending the hearing. Public response
will determine whether coal ash is finally regulated
like the hazardous waste it is or left
subject to a patchwork of inadequate state regulations.
Speak up and hold industry responsible for the tragic consequences
of its negligence.

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