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Coal Ash Pollution Impacts Middle Fork of the Vermilion River Illinois’ Only National Scenic River

Sign our petition to urge Governor Rauner to support complete closure and cleanup of these ash pits to preserve the health of the Middle Fork River and protect the communities that depend on it.


Failing coal ash storage pits from the now-shuttered Dynegy Vermiion coal-fired power plant near Oakwood, Illinois are polluting the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. The Middle Fork, the only National Scenic River in Illinois, is distinguished from most other streams in the area by its rock and gravel bed and its remarkably clean water. The river supports a great diversity of fish – from tiny, colorful darters to larger sport fish such as channel catfish and smallmouth bass – as well as mussels, crayfish and a multitude of other invertebrates. The ash pits are located along the Middle Fork just upstream from Kickapoo State Park and other protected lands where families recreate and thousands of people canoe or tube down the river each year.(1)

Coal ash is a byproduct of burning coal for electricity. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, coal ash contains high levels of toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, zinc, cadmium and selenium that can poison wildlife and threaten human health. It is typically stored in pits (also called ponds) at the facility where it is generated.

The river banks are eroding and the abutting coal ash pits leaching toxic waste into the surface and groundwater. Photo by Pam Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative. April 2016.

The river banks are eroding and the abutting coal ash pits leaching toxic waste into the surface and groundwater. Photo by Pam Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative. April 2016.

Two of the three ash pits at the Dynegy Vermilion plant are unlined, and the company’s own reporting indicates they are releasing harmful pollutants into the Middle Fork.(2) The third, more recently-constructed storage pit, was built over a mine void, raising concerns that this pit could be destabilized by subsidence. All three are located in the river’s floodplain. When the river reaches flood stage, and the water backs up into the impoundments, it picks up dissolved pollutants that travel back into the river.

The natural movement of the river also is eroding the embankments of the coal ash pits, raising concerns about a potential breach, such as the one that took place near Kingston, TN in 2008 that resulted in a one billion gallon coal ash spill into the Emory River, or Duke Energy’s 2014 coal ash spill near Eden, NC, which covered 70 miles of the Dan River with gray sludge. Attempts by Dynegy to control the erosion with rock structures have failed.

With every rainfall and flood event, these ponds are leaking into adjacent groundwater and threatening a potential breach,” said Traci Barkley, Water Resources Scientist with Prairie Rivers Network. “These ash dumps should have never been built next to the river and over mine voids in the first place. They were not built to withstand the test of time.

Advocates for the Middle Fork, including area residents; Eco-Justice Collaborative; and the Prairie Rivers Network, (PRN), a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization that has been leading the push for coal ash site regulations, contend that Dynegy’s plan doesn’t go far enough. Instead, Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois EPA should force Dynegy to relocate all three coal-ash pits far from the river onto its more than 900-acre property. If that’s not done, it will just be a matter of time before the pond walls break and tons of the toxic sludge spill into the Middle Fork. Unfortunately,

Dynegy wants to leave its waste in place. As proposed, Dynegy would close the two unlined ponds by capping them with a “geosynthetic cover” and merely monitoring groundwater. No plans have been made to address concerns for the newest pond which, unlike the other two, was built with a clay liner, but is located over a mine void.

Take action today to protect the Middle Fork, and sign this petition calling on Dynegy to clean up and remove their coal ash dumps from the floodplain of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

(1)The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River was designated Illinois’ first state scenic river by Gov. Jim Thompson in 1986, and a national scenic river by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan in 1989. What else makes it so special:

  • The river valley is home to 57 species of fish, mussels, turtles and salamanders; 45 different mammals; and 190 species of birds. Of this wildlife, 24 are on the state’s threatened or endangered species list.
  • Most of the area along the river is forested. Three areas support plants and animals so rare that they are protected as state nature preserves.
  • There are more than 8,400 acres of public lands adjacent to the Middle Fork.

(2)Moss, Tracy. Environmental Concerns Remain Over Coal-Ash Ponds. The News-Gazette. August 19, 2013.

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