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February 2018 Storm Elevates Concerns over Coal Ash Threat to the Middle Fork of the Vermilion

The Middle Fork of the Vermilion River in east-central Illinois is the state’s’ only National Scenic River.  It is threatened by 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash, deposited by Illinois Power and its successors over a 55-year period.  Vistra+Dynegy (Dynegy), owner of the coal plant and the three unlined coal ash pits that sit on the banks of this river, has been working with the Illinois EPA over the past six years to obtain approval of a closure plan that would address their violation of Class I Groundwater standards for boron, manganese, sulfate, total dissolved solids, iron and pH. These chemicals are indicative of coal ash pollution. Dynegy’s preferred option is cap the ash pits and stabilize eroding riverbanks next to these pits.  More information on the risks of leaving the ash in the floodplain can be found in the FAQ document prepared by Eco-Justice Collaborative late 2017.

Erosion Greater After Near Record Storm
A May 2, 2018 paddle of the Middle Fork by Eco-Justice Collaborative’s Co-Directors Pam and Lan Richart revealed that a record February 2018 storm had, as anticipated, scoured the banks along much of the river, including major stretches along Dynegy’s Old East and North Ash Pits. Storms that passed through east-central Illinois during the week of February 19 brought water levels in the Middle Fork to the highest they’ve been in 24 years.  On February 21, 2018, the gauge reading of the river at the Kickapoo State Park Bridge reached 18.5 feet, with an estimated flow of 14,100 cfs.  This storm downed large trees and moved boulders, trees, and other debris downstream, scouring riverbanks.  This flood event also caused the failure of a levee along the east side of the river that separated an old strip mining lake from the Middle Fork.

Click image to begin slide show. Photos by Pam Richart, Eco-Justice Collaborative. May 2, 2018.

Field Observations
Here is a summary of what we observed:
1. Gabions (wire cages filled with rocks) formerly along the upstream end of the North Ash Pit have largely been ripped from the riverbank. They now lie in the river channel.

2. There has been a significant increase in riverbank erosion next to the North and Old East ash pits. Combined, these pits hold approximately 2.8 million cubic yards of coal ash.  Deteriorated gabions once present in long sections along the Old Eat Ash Pit no longer exist.

3. In several locations, the riverbank has been hollowed out, such that gabions now overhang the water from above. As the river continues to move west toward the ash pits, we expect remaining gabions will fall into the river, leaving these areas more exposed and subject to increased erosion.

4. Leachate was observed actively seeping into the river over an increased length of the bank.  A large orange pool is collecting near the downstream end of the Old East Ash Pit.

5.  There are areas where it appears that riverbank next to the Old East Ash Pit is just a few feet from the toe-of-slope of the coal ash embankment  Dynegy’s consultant URS Corporation stated in their 2013 Geotechnical Report that the Old East and North Ash Pits will be at imminent risk of failure when the river is eight and 10 feet from the toe of the embankments, respectively (see page ii of the Executive Summary).

Concerns Over Eroding Banks Not New
Concerns over eroding banks and the ability to protect the coal ash pits have been ongoing since the 1980’s, when Illinois Power first armored riverbanks next to the North and Old East Ash Pits with gabions. These have been deteriorating for years, and large areas of riverbank next to these ash pits now are totally unprotected and eroding much faster than anticipated.

Another major storm event similar to the intensity of the one we experienced in February 2018 could result in a disaster – one that could have been avoided had responsible agencies acted in time.

Responsible Party for Ash Relocation
Eco-Justice Collaborative continues to believe that long-term, the coal ash needs to be removed and relocated by Dynegy.  Any stabilization that might be approved by the Illinois EPA as part of a closure plan would need to be monitored, maintained and repaired, particularly after major storm events. Unless Dynegy is required to post a bond for this purpose (and we are told the Illinois EPA will not require this), costs for protecting the river from a potential coal ash spill will fall to the taxpayer at a time when our state is struggling with budget crises and agencies are severely understaffed.

This is a state-administered river in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Please take the time to send Illinois Governor Rauner and EPA Director Alec Messina a letter that lets them know you expect them to work with Dynegy to move the coal ash out of the river’s floodplain to a properly-designed and lined landfill, far from the river.


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