Dynegy’s Coal Ash Threat
Dynegy owns three coal ash impoundments in the floodplain of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River in Vermilion County, Illinois. These pits are just upstream from Kickapoo State Park, and 12 miles from the City of Danville's riverfront development project. They contain a mix of coal ash materials (including fly ash, bottom ash, boiler slag, and other materials) with different chemical compositions (because of different types of coal burned over the power plant’s lifetime).
All three pits are unlined. The two oldest storage areas, the North Ash Pond and the Old East Ash Pond are leaking. The third, the New East Ash Pond, was constructed on top of the existing bedrock (shale). Although its sides are lined with clay and trenched into the bedrock (diked ring), it is not considered a lined facility by the U.S. EPA. Also, the New East Ash Pond sits over areas of historic underground mining, raising concerns over the potential for future subsidence. According to a report prepared by Dynegy’s consultants in 2003:
The coal mines in the vicinity of the New East Ash Pond System have been shown to have significant collapse features where the overlying shale has collapsed or partially collapsed downward into the void or mined coal seam. The collapse of the shale into the void translates upward through the shale, resulting in fracturing and in some cases surface subsidence.
There are already visible seeps along the bank, and detectable impacts in the water and aquatic life. This means that heavy metals in coal ash are currently placing the Middle Fork and adjacent groundwater at risk. A recent study by the Illinois Natural History Survey has documented elevated levels of coal ash contaminants in aquatic organisms downstream from the site.
What is Coal Ash?
Coal ash is a byproduct of burning 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 also can also harm and kill wildlife, especially fish and other water-dwelling species.
A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Because all three coal ash pits lie within the floodplain of the river, floodwaters and high water tables are a threat to their foundations and structural integrity. During a flood, the power of the river cuts new channels, and the embankments of the pits are eroding from the river. Steel gabions, constructed in 1978 to support these embankments, are crumbling as leachate from the ponds is corroding the metal structure and wastewater is draining into the river.
If just a little over 1% of Dynegy’s coal ash entered the river, it would be comparable to the volume of Duke Energy's 2014 Dan River spill that sent coal ash 70 miles downstream.
- Lan Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative
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A breach of these pits could send millions of cubic yards of toxic ash down the river much like recent catastrophes in Tennessee and North Carolina. The 2014 Duke Energy spill in North Carolina sent 46,000 cubic yards of toxic waste into the Dan River, which traveled 70 miles downstream. A spill such as this on the Middle Fork could leave massive cleanup costs to taxpayers, and Illinois’ only National Scenic River and adjacent wildlife and recreation areas would be devastated. The City of Danville is purchasing land along both sides of the river for its new riverfront project, and would be severely impacted by a spill.
Dynegy closed its Vermilion coal-fired power plant in 2011. Now, as part of its closure plan, Dynegy wants to cap these pits and leave the toxic waste in the floodplain. In order ensure the long-term protection of the Middle Fork and avoid massive expenditures, complete removal of this dangerous waste from the floodplain is essential. The Illinois EPA is currently reviewing Dyngey's plan for closing its toxic coal ash pits.
One easy way to take action now is to send a letter to State Senator Scott Bennett, State Representative Chad Hays, Danville's Mayor Scott Eisenhauer, and County Board Chair Michael Marron. Ask them to ask Governor Rauner and the Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) to tell the IEPA its time to require Dynegy to move its coal ash from the floodplain to a properly-designed facility on its property, away from the river. Then send the second letter to the Governor and Director of the IEPA. We've created a letter you can use or edit. Personalizing your letter will have the most impact.
Other states are requiring utility companies to relocate their ash, so why aren't we?