Report: Nearly All Illinois Coal-Fired Plants Contaminating Groundwater | WBEZ
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Report: Nearly All Illinois Coal-Fired Plants Contaminating Groundwater

A new report says groundwater near power plants across Illinois is being contaminated by a toxic byproduct called coal ash. The ash, which contains a long list of toxic metals, is left behind after the facilities burn coal for fuel. Twenty-two of 24 coal-fired plants across the state have reported groundwater contamination from the substance.

The report, compiled by a group of environmental nonprofits, looks at data provided by the utility companies that run the plants. A 2015 federal rule change around coal ash management requires power companies to publicly report the results of groundwater testing at their sites.

“Now that we’ve got this recent data that industry has been required to collect we’re really seeing what we’ve expected to find,” said Jenny Cassel, a coal ash projects attorney with Earthjustice, which co-authored the report. “When you dump coal ash full of toxic metals into unlined ponds, it’s really no surprise that the vast majority of them are leaking.”

Tests show coal ash contaminants at one retired power plant in central Illinois is leaching from an unlined pond into the Middle Fork, a nearby stretch of the Little Vermilion River. The Middle Fork is Illinois’ only federally designated Wild & Scenic River. Activists, and residents in that area have demanded the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency hold Texas-based utility Vistra accountable for cleaning up the coal ash.

Environmentalists involved in efforts to clean up the Middle Fork say they are worried the company responsible for the site will seek a solution that allows it to cover the ash and leave it in place.

“Vistra now has a proposal before the Illinois EPA to cover its ash and leave it permanently in the floodplain of the river,” Lan Richart, an aquatic ecologist and co-director of the Eco-Justice Collaborative wrote in a Wednesday statement. “It will remain a source of pollution forever.”

Activists Wednesday morning delivered nearly 2,000 letters and petitions to the office of outgoing Gov. Bruce Rauner, calling on him to delay any decision around a clean-up plan for the ash ponds on the Middle Fork until a public hearing is held.

“Prior to the election, we were promised a meeting with the Governor,” Richart wrote. “But after nearly two months, it became clear to us that protecting Illinois’ only National Scenic River from coal ash pollution and the threat of a coal ash spill was not important enough to him to take time to meet with constituents.”

Cassel said she thinks that many coal-fired power plant operators in Illinois would like to seek a “cap-and-leave” closure plan, similar to Vistra, because they’re cheaper.

“The problem is it doesn’t stop the pollution in many cases,” Cassel said. “You may prevent rain from coming into the ponds from the top, but you’re not doing anything to stop groundwater flowing into the ponds from underground.”

Cassel said the reports show more than a dozen coal ash ponds across Illinois are within five feet of groundwater. Erosion in areas like the Middle Fork is also a major concern — the river there is slowly eating into the bank holding back millions of cubic yards of coal ash.

The Vermilion River Power Plant, owned by Texas-based energy company Vistra. (Sebastián Hidalgo/WBEZ)

The report recommends Illinois lawmakers take steps to prohibit further dumping of coal ash in places where it can reach groundwater, require owners of coal ash dumps to set aside money for clean-up of lands harmed by coal ash, and make efforts to include the public in decisions around safeguards to prevent future contamination.

It also highlights water contamination at the 60-year-old Waukegan Generating Station, just north of Chicago, linked to a coal ash landfill and nearby ash ponds.

“The groundwater at Waukegan is unsafe, with dramatically elevated concentrations of multiple coal ash pollutants, including arsenic, boron, chromium, lithium, molybdenum, and sulfate,” the report read. “Unless the ash is removed … [it] will continue to pollute Waukegan’s groundwater — and Lake Michigan, the drinking water source for Chicago and many other cities and towns — for centuries to come.”

According to the report, many Illinois coal plants also reflect the nationwide trend of pollution impacting communities of color and low-income communities disproportionately.

“These pollutants stay in the environment for hundreds of years,” Cassel said. “We don’t know where [the utilities will] be in 200 years, we don’t know if they’ll exist, if they’ll be bankrupt. But the communities, we hope, will still be there. And we don’t think that these communities should be left continuing to be subjected to this kind of dangerous pollution and we don’t think they should be left holding the bag to clean up something they didn't put there to begin with.”

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