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coal ash + dulce ortiz

Dulce Ortiz, in the cardigan, stands with members of Clean Power Lake County. The group organized for decade to shut down a coal plant polluting Waukegan.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Illinois environmental advocates say coal ash cleanup isn’t happening fast enough

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Dulce Ortiz doesn’t swim in Lake Michigan near her home in north suburban Waukegan, and she won’t let her kids near it either. She fears the water could make her family sick.

In 2019, the state confirmed what Ortiz and others had long suspected: Coal ash from the Waukegan Generating Station had leached into nearby groundwater. Worse yet, the coal ash was stored right near the lake.

“This is a majority-minority community full of immigrants, especially undocumented sisters and brothers,” said Ortiz, a co-founder of Clean Power Lake County (CPLC,) a nonprofit pursuing environmental justice in the area. More than half of Waukegan’s population of about 88,000 is Latino, and Ortiz said pollution from the nearby coal power plant has driven respiratory issues in the community for years.

Waukegan Generating Station closed in 2022 and is still visible from the city’s only public beach. After decades of burning coal for energy, pollution still exists on the site. Coal ash is a cocktail of hazardous pollutants leftover from coal combustion.

Across the country, plant operators dumped that heavy metal-laden waste mixed with water into holes in the ground, sometimes called ponds or impoundments. Sometimes these ponds are lined, and sometimes they aren’t. None of the ponds in Waukegan that are lined meet current state and federal standards.

Ortiz felt hopeful five years ago when Illinois lawmakers passed landmark coal ash regulation, which compelled impoundment owners to submit plans to either clean up their operations or shut down. Three years ago, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) finalized exactly how operators had to submit these proposals. But plans are on hold for securing the three coal ash impoundments in Waukegan. The IEPA hasn’t finalized permits for those sites.

Ortiz describes the situation as a “ticking time bomb.”

Her hope is that between Illinois’ recently beefed-up coal ash permitting program and a new suite of federal power plant rules, the looming threat under Waukegan can be disarmed for good.

Illinois set itself apart from the majority of the country when it finalized its coal ash rules back in 2021. Most states, save for a handful like North Carolina and Michigan, relied on 2015 federal guidelines designed to monitor and clean up only some coal ash residuals. Environmental groups scrutinized the rule for years as it excluded from potential oversight legacy coal ash ponds and landfills at power plants that were retired when the rule took effect. Now advocates say the forthcoming permits are dragging.

“The Illinois EPA has been reviewing these proposed permits for almost two years,” said Andrew Rehn, the director of climate policy at Prairie Rivers Network in Champaign. “And that’s like a long time for these permits to sit and just be under review.”

The Illinois EPA is currently reviewing 44 separate coal ash surface impoundment permit applications for 25 current or former power plant sites across the state. Last month, two-and-a-half years since the first permit applications were submitted, the agency issued its first two draft permits.

The agency said in a statement to WBEZ that, “due to the complexity of the information required in the applications, in most cases [the] Illinois EPA has requested additional information or clarification from the applicants.” The statement went on to say that it can take weeks to months to “gather additional information or to analyze groundwater modeling data.”

In other cases, coal power plant operators have sought to make changes to their permits and effectively stalled the permit process until a different government agency is able to resolve the request.

Coal power plants have sought to make exceptions for their permits and have effectively stalled the permit process until the Illinois Pollution Control Board is able to resolve the requests. According to the IEPA, this is the major holdup with the Waukegan permits.

The federal role in regulating coal power plants

Meanwhile, new federal regulations issued last week give the nation’s fleet of coal power plants and new natural gas plants an ultimatum: Adapt or shut down. The power plants have eight years to come up with a plan to capture 90% of their greenhouse gas emissions or commit to closing by 2039.

Advocates like Ortiz see this long-awaited move as a step closer to phasing out coal for good. Although the coal business is in decline, it still plays an outsized role in driving climate change and polluting surrounding communities. More than half the country’s carbon dioxide emissions from electric power generation are attributable to burning coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“With the 2015 rules, there was a circle of ponds, and landfills that were subject to regulation,” said Megan Wachspress, a staff attorney with the Sierra Club. “That circle of ponds and landfills and other dump sites just got bigger.”

Ortiz has a memory from years ago burned into the back of her mind. She was giving a presentation at her son’s middle school about pollution and asked the class: “Do you know anybody, like a family or friend or yourself,that has asthma?”

“I would vouch to say that 90% of the kids raised their hands,” Ortiz said.

This is what Ortiz has been fighting against. She loves Waukegan and has lived there for more than 30 years. More than anything, she wants her kids to decide to stay in Waukegan, but she wants it to be a place where it’s safe to drink the water and breathe the air. Time to make that happen is limited.

“The way that climate is changing, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Ortiz said. “If we have a really bad weather event on the lake, you don’t know if that technology they’re using to cap it in place is going to be safe and secure.”

Ortiz said eventually she would like to take a dip in the lake again, but at the pace state and federal agencies are moving, she thinks it could be a while.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers climate change and the environment for WBEZ and Grist. Follow him on X at @__juanpab.

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