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 can also harm and kill wildlife, especially fish and other water-dwelling species.
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 and pollution control technologies in place 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. In 2008, the IEPA found that coal ash pollution was flowing into the river from seeps along the riverbank that abuts the two oldest pits. According to a January 2013 internal IEPA email, an agency representative “had no problem collecting seepage at the base of the berm, which is right on the riverbank.” A recent study by the Illinois Natural History Survey has documented elevated levels of coal ash contaminants in aquatic organisms downstream from the site.
A Disaster Waiting to Happen
Because all three coal ash pits lie within the floodplain of the river, riverbank erosion is a threat to their foundations and structural integrity. During a flood, the power of the river cuts new channels. In 1981, Illinois Power installed gabions (wire cages filled with rock) to stop the erosion of riverbanks that abut the coal ash pits. Today, they are crumbling - or non-existent.
In 2015, erosion of the riverbanks that abut the New East Ash Pit was so severe that Dynegy had to seek emergency approval for stabilization. From 15 to 20 feet of these protective banks had eroded, and much of that took place in just six years. Most recently, Stantec Consulting Services, Dynegy's consulting engineer, reported that the erosion rate near the North and Old East pits was 2.5 to 9 times greater than previous estimates. In fact, the banks have eroded so severely that 775 feet have already eroded to a point where there is insufficient space between the river’s edge and the toe of the slope of the coal ash impoundment to accommodate construction equipment required to stabilize the banks as they had planned. An additional 550 feet may also be inaccessible due to deteriorating gabions.
Stone (“rip-rap”) along 485’ of riverbank abutting the New East Ash Pit lies in stark contrast to the natural character of this scenic river. Photo by Pam Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative. June 2017.
Even if the banks are stabilized as part of Dynegy's proposed closure plan, the Middle Fork has already demonstrated how it can erode riverbank protection measures. Stantec Consulting Services explained that even if the options for stabilization they recommended were installed, ongoing monitoring, maintenance and repair of bank stabilization would be required, especially after flood events. There are no state requirements that would require Dynegy to post a fiduciary bond or other financial guarantees proposed by Dynegy for this purpose.
This is a liability that should not be left to the taxpayer. 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. The ash traveled 70 miles downstream. A spill such as this on the Middle Fork could leave massive cleanup costs to taxpayers, and devastate Illinois’ only National Scenic River and adjacent wildlife and recreation areas. The Kickapoo State Recreation Area alone generates from $11 million to $15 million in revenues for Vermilion County every year, and the County and City of Danville hope to capitalize on the potential of this 17-mile scenic river corridor to generate additional tourism and related economic development. The river system would be polluted by a coal ash spill. Vermilion County residents would pay the price through lost revenues from both existing and potential tourism; planned economic development; and costs of cleanup.
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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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 Dynegy's plan for closing its toxic coal ash pits.
One easy way to take action now is to send an electronic letter to State Senator Scott Bennett and State Representative Chad Hays; Danville's Mayor Scott Eisenhauer and County Board Chair Michael Marron; and Governor Rauner and the Alec Messina, Director of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA). Ask them to require Dynegy to move its coal ash from the floodplain to a properly-designed facility on its property, away from the river. Personalizing your letter will have the most impact.
Other states are requiring utility companies to relocate their ash, so why aren't we?