The now-closed Vermilion Power Station sits on the west bank of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River in east-central Illinois. The Middle Fork is Illinois’ only National Scenic River. The coal plant, currently owned by Vistra Energy, was closed in 2011. But for more than 55 years, over 3.3 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash were dumped into three unlined pits in the river’s floodplain. That volume of waste would cover one NFL football field with a pile of ash 1,547 feet high, or fill Chicago’s Willis Tower nearly two times!
Coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal, causes birth defects, cancer, and neurological damage in humans – and it can harm and kill wildlife. Two of the three ash pits are known to be leaking, and the third sits over a mine void, raising concerns over subsidence and a catastrophic coal ash spill into the groundwater.
Arsenic, chromium, boron, iron, lead and manganese have been shown to be leaking into the groundwater and river. But Vistra Energy wants to cap the waste and permanently leave it in the floodplain. This may slow, but will not stop leaching of coal ash chemicals, because the ash will remain hydraulically connected to the groundwater and river.
The company also is proposing to protect the two oldest coal ash impoundments from the meandering Middle Fork by constructing a massive wall of rock along adjacent eroding riverbanks. Erosion at this location has been a concern for decades, because the river is moving west toward the impoundments to reclaim its floodplain (where the ash pits now are located). Major storms severely erode and undercut riverbanks, bringing the river channel precariously close to the coal ash impoundments, endangering stability.
While this rock wall could temporarily slow erosion, it will not permanently protect the river from pollution or a coal ash spill. The only permanent solution is to move the ash away from the Middle Fork.
Vistra Energy’s Proposal
In July, 2018, Vistra submitted a Section 404/401 joint permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to place 22,370 cubic yards of rock and native fill material along a 1,900 linear foot ( > 1/3 mile) stretch of the right bank of the river. We believe that this plan is the first step in the company’s plan to cap the pits and leave them in place. This aggressive plan could significantly impact water quality, aquatic life, and recreation. Leaving the ash in place also would create a legacy of toxic waste for future generations that could include:
- Ongoing pollution.
- The threat of a coal ash spill that would have severe consequences for the river and the regional recreational economy.
- Perpetual costs and responsibilities associated with monitoring and maintaining riverbank armoring and coal ash impoundments.
What We Need from You
Will you send a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking them to hold a public hearing on the riverbank armoring project proposed by Vistra? A hearing will allow both the public and experts to testify on the impacts of the proposal, as described in the letter.
Please take a moment to personalize your letter to maximize its effectiveness. While the closure of the coal ash pits and the bank stabilization are interrelated, your letter and request for public hearing should address only the riverbank stabilization project.
Banner photo showing a river restoration project. Courtesy of Western Stream Works