Faced with a plan to leave 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash in leaking, unlined pits along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River and no formal opportunity to voice public concerns over the plan, the Eco-Justice Collaborative, a local non-profit hosted an independent forum to take public comments on the proposal. With the assistance of local residents and support from elected representatives, EJC convened a “People’s Hearing” Monday night at Bremer Center, Danville Area Community College. “A decision to permanently leave this much toxic waste in unlined pits on the banks of Illinois’ only National Scenic River deserves public input” said Pam Richart, Co-Director of EJC. “Since the Illinois EPA has no plans to hold a hearing to solicit public comments, we decided to hold our own.”
The forum, moderated by local elected officials, Senator Scott Bennett, Danville Mayor, Scott Eisenhauer and County Board Chairman Mike Marron began with an update on the site, calling on Governor, the Illinois EPA, and the Illinois DNR to work together to move 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash out of the floodplain. Company representatives have previously indicated their preference for simply capping the waste material and leaving it in its present location. Opponents object to this approach, pointing out that groundwater could continue to flow through the ash, carrying with it harmful coal ash chemicals.
Rick Cobb, Deputy Division Manager, Division of Public Water Supplies of the Illinois EPA explained Dynegy-Vistra, the Texas based company that currently owns the three waste pits, is expected to submit its final groundwater report to IEPA in late October. An IEPA decision will follow.
The coal ash pits have long been threatened by the continually moving channel of the Middle Fork River. Emergency bank stabilization was required in November of 2016 after it was shown that the riverbank adjacent to the New East Pit had eroded nearly 20 feet in just six years. Two additional pits upstream are now threatened as the river moves closer to the embankments holding back the coal ash. Heavy armoring installed in the 1980’s by then owner Illinois Power has since been destroyed by the relentless forces of the river. Dynegy-Vistra intends to stabilize banks next to the Old East and North Ash Pits as part of their closure plan. But, in testimony at the hearing, Dr. Bruce Rhoads, a fluvial geomorphologist, noted that “In a meandering river such as the Middle Fork, attempts to effectively stabilize banks against the natural process of erosion are challenging, and even with frequent monitoring and maintenance, could fail.”
Other speakers at the hearing included Dr. Rob Kanter, Clinical Associate Professor at UIUC and outdoor writer who spoke of the ecological and recreational values of the river, Illinois’ only National Scenic River and recently recognized as one of America’s most endangered rivers due to the coal ash threat. “The Middle Fork is an area treasure, valued by tens of thousands of people for its natural beauty, biological diversity, and water-based recreation”, said Kanter. “All of this could be destroyed in a matter of minutes by a coal ash catastrophe”.
The informational portion of the meeting ended with a powerful story from Sarah McCoin, resident of rural Harriman, Tennessee. Speaking from her home near the site of the coal ash disaster at the TVA power plant on the Emory River, McCoin recalled the devastation of the coal ash spill on December 22, 2008, when an embankment breached on a Duke Energy facility releasing 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash, covering fields, damaging homes and filling waterways. In the end the spill engulfed 300 acres and cost well over $1.2 billion in cleanup. “It was like a really bad movie” McCoin said.
Addressing the problem with coal ash storage, McCoin said, “What’s really almost hard to believe it has been nearly ten years and we have the same stories going on across the nation”. “My story is unique, but sadly it won’t be the last story with these consequences”.
The final hour of the hearing offered local residents an opportunity to share their concerns and voice their comments. Representatives of Eco-Justice Collaborative noted that the evening’s proceedings were recorded and will be delivered to Governor Bruce Rauner and IEPA Director Alec Messina.
Those persons wishing to make additional comments on the proposal can do so by going to www.ecojusticecollaborative.org. Just fill in the comment form and send. Talking points are posted for you to use, if needed.
Click here for more information on the People’s Hearing.