Groups Seek Stronger Safeguards

Dynegy Vermilion

Photo by Jeff Lucas, Gutting the Heartland

Posted on June 7, 2016
Groups seek stronger safeguards in Illinois coal ash rules

By Kari Lydersen

The Vermilion Middle Fork is a swift-flowing river winding through lush forests, rolling prairie and craggy cliffs in central Illinois. Designated as one of the country’s “National Scenic Rivers,” it is subject to federal and state protections, popular with paddlers and home to wildlife including 24 endangered or threatened species.

But the river’s banks butt up against three massive pits filled with toxic coal ash produced over five decades by the Vermilion coal-fired power plant, which closed in 2011 and is still owned by the power company Dynegy. The pits hold more than 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash, enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool more than 1,000 times.

In some spots, dark orange run-off drips into the Vermilion, as documented by canoeing environmental watchdogs who note that such iron-rich runoff is common from coal ash impoundments. The river’s banks also show obvious signs of erosion, and as the soft earth recedes it brings the river closer to the vast reserves of coal ash.

Local residents and environmental advocates fear that the Vermilion could become the site of a disaster akin to those in Kingston, Tennessee or the Dan River in North Carolina, where coal impoundments failed and inundated nearby waterways and towns with toxic sludge.

Two sets of rules

In October, long-awaited federal rules governing the storage of coal ash took effect. But the rules do not apply to ash stored at power plants that were already closed, hence the impoundments next to the Vermilion River are not covered.

The state is in the process of drafting its own rules on coal ash storage.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) started this process several years ago, and after discussions between industry and environmental stakeholders, it came up with a draft that environmental advocates said was decent if not ideal.

But the agency halted that process to see how the federal rules played out. After those rules were finalized, the Illinois Pollution Control Board ordered the IEPA to submit its proposed rules.

This time, the state agency — under the new administration of Gov. Bruce Rauner — submitted proposed rules far less stringent and comprehensive than the previous draft. The proposed rules currently before the board cover six pages, while the earlier draft was around 50 pages.

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