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Another Step toward Victory for the Middle Fork!
Dynegy to Reconsider Massive Bank Stabilization Project
Thanks to the efforts of so many of you, last week marked another important victory for our campaign to protect the Middle Fork.

Facing significant public resistance and a federal agency’s mandate to protect the integrity of Illinois’ only National Scenic River, Dynegy Midwest Generation has now indicated that it will be redesigning its proposed bank stabilization along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Their stated goal is to reduce the scale of the stabilization; limit its protrusion into the river channel; and significantly reduce the project’s negative impacts on the river and those who use it.

Over the last several months, hundreds of letters were sent to the NPS from east-central Illinois residents who voiced concern that the proposed bank stabilization would violate the provisions of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act by negatively affecting the aesthetics, ecology, and recreational use of the river (click to read EJC’s letter of objection).  The National Park Service became increasingly convinced they could not approve Dynegy’s proposal, and instead encouraged Dynegy to develop an alternative that would be less intrusive.

Click to send a letter to Governor Pritzker and IEPA Director Kim

Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. Click image to send a letter to Governor Pritzker and Illinois EPA Director Kim asking them to ensure the toxic coal ash stored in the river’s floodplain is moved. Photo by Pam Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative

This is an important victory for EJC and other river protection advocates who over recent months have been calling for more targeted and temporary bank stabilization, while the IEPA and Illinois Attorney General’s office consider alternatives for closing Dynegy’s three polluting coal ash pits that were built adjacent to the river.  One of those alternatives is the removal of the ash from the floodplain, a decision that would negate the need for long-term and over-engineered bank armoring.

The Illinois EPA, Bureau of Water, has said that approval of a bank stabilization plan doesn’t rule out the possibility that Dynegy will be required to remove and relocate its coal ash. 

Eco-Justice Collaborative will continue to call for coal ash removal in order to stop ongoing pollution, and to allow the Middle Fork to reclaim its floodplain.

In June of 2018, Dynegy submitted a permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to deposit fill within the river, an essential requirement for completing its bank stabilization project.  Approval of the permit, which would be authorized under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act , required review by the National Park Service (NPS).  The NPS needed to determine, under Section 7(a) of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, that the proposed project would not have a direct and adverse effect on the values for which the Middle Fork was designated a National Scenic River. In a recent inter-agency meeting, the NPS indicated that Dynegy’s project, as currently proposed, does not meet Section 7(a) criteria.

Dynegy had originally proposed a massive bank stabilization project to keep the river from encroaching on its coal waste storage ponds.  The project would have placed over 20,000 cubic yards of stone rip rap along nearly 2,000 feet of the river bank.  The stone would have extended into the river channel over 35 feet in some locations and seven feet below the existing river bottom.  Eco-Justice Collaborative and allied organizations such as Prairie Rivers Network saw this proposal as a first step in satisfying Dynegy’s intent to permanently leave their ash behind.

Dynegy closed its coal fired power plant along the river in 2011, but 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash remain in three, unlined pits located within yards of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.  Coal ash chemicals have been found to be leaking into the groundwater and the river.  In the mean time, the meandering channel of the Middle Fork has been moving ever closer to the embankment holding back the ash, causing concern on the part of environmental advocates, industry representatives as well as environmental agencies charged with protecting the river.

All parties understand the need to prevent a breach of the coal ash impoundments and the catastrophic release of coal ash into the river.  However, permanently damaging the river with a massive and artificial bank stabilization project does not seem prudent if coal ash closure will ultimately require the removal and relocation of this toxic waste.

If the ash is moved from the floodplain into a properly designed upland facility, there will be no need for bank stabilization and the ongoing costs for monitoring and maintenance. The Corps of Engineers has asked Dynegy to prepare and have available, contingency stabilization plans that could be quickly implemented in specific and targeted areas in the event that erosion threatens the coal ash embankment.  In the meantime, we trust that Dynegy will be expeditious in developing a bank stabilization plan that is appropriate for a National Scenic River and compatible with a program that would move the polluting coal ash upland, away from the river.

What’s Next?
With Dynegy heading back to the drawing board on its bank stabilization design, it is possible that the Section 404 permit review process will remain open, pending receipt of a revised plan.  Any new plan would again require review by the National Park Service under the provisions of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.  If the plan meets the criteria of the Act, the National Park Service will issue a letter of “no adverse effect”, essentially stating that they do not object to the Corps of Engineers issuing the permit.  In the past, the NPS has been clear that although they do not have authority over the actual closure of the ash pits, they strongly prefer that they are removed from the floodplain, and that the river is allowed to return to it natural pattern of meandering.

To be valid, a Section 404 permit also must have a Section 401 certification from the Illinois EPA, affirming that the project will not violate surface water quality standards nor interfere with existing uses of the river.  The IEPA held a public hearing in the 401 certification on March 26, 2019.  At least 50 people signed up to testify and nearly a hundred more submitted written comments opposing the issuance of the 401 certification.

Prior to the hearing, the IEPA had made a tentative determination to issue water quality certification for the original 2,000 foot project.  IEPA representatives are now in the process of reviewing public hearing comments pursuant to rendering a final decision.  A subsequent decision on the approval of a plan for closing the coal ash pits will be made via a process now underway under way with the IEPA and the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

Continue to watch: ecojusticecollaborative.org for updates.

Lan Richart, Co-Director
Eco-Justice Collaborative

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