PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday May 14th, 2014, 5:30pm

Illinois Residents, Environmental Groups Sound The Alarm On Coal Ash Dangers

Illinois environmental groups and residents say the state's proposed draft rules for coal ash pits at power plant sites fall short when it comes to protecting the public from a "coal ash catastrophe." Progress Illinois details why environmentalists are calling for stronger coal ash regulations at the state level.

Illinois environmental groups and residents say the state's draft rules for coal ash pits at power plant sites fall short when it comes to protecting the public from a "coal ash catastrophe." 

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency's (IEPA) proposed coal ash waste rules need to be strengthened to better safeguard the public against possible drinking water contamination and other threats posed by coal ash ponds, according to community members and leaders with the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Prairie Rivers Network.

There are 91 retention ponds in Illinois holding coal ash, a toxic byproduct of electricity generation discharged from coal-fired power plants. The coal ash pits in the state, many of which are unlined, are associated with Illinois' 22 coal-fired power plants. Traci Barkley, a water resources scientist with the Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network, said coal ash ponds require an "enormous" amount of water, which is why many of them are located close to rivers and other large bodies of water.

Each year, Illinois produces 4.4 million tons of coal ash, which contains heavy metals such as mercury, lead and arsenic. Contaminates from coal ash have been recorded in the groundwater near every coal ash site in the state that has been studied by the IEPA

"Our state cannot afford to take on the liability and expense for more groundwater contamination from ash pits or cleanup after one of these toxic dinosaurs collapses into one of our rivers," Barkley said. "Governor Quinn and our state regulators have the opportunity right now to enact rules that will prevent disaster and ensure that the utilities are taking full responsibility.”

The Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) held a hearing Wednesday in Chicago that will continue as needed on Thursday regarding the IEPA's draft coal ash waste rules, which were released in October 2013.

The board held two days of hearings on the rules in Springfield in late February, the same month a massive coal ash spill occurred in North Carolina. Between 30,000 to 39,000 tons of coal ash poured into North Carolina's Dan River on February 2 due to a broken pipe below an unlined Duke Energy coal ash pit.

Coal ash ponds "are disasters waiting to happen all across our state that threaten our communities and our drinking water supply,” said Jack Darin, director of the Sierra Club Illinois Chapter. “If we want to get a sense of what could happen at any one of those sites, we really only need to look east to North Carolina for what should be a real wake up call on coal ash."

Darin said possible drinking water contamination from coal ash pollution would more likely be the result of an underground spill at a coal ash waste site rather than an aboveground accident. However, he stressed that some coal ash ponds in the state currently pose a risk of collapsing aboveground, falling "directly into water supplies." 

There are also some Illinois coal ash storage sites "where we know that these toxic chemicals are leeching into our groundwater, and we know that the groundwater is moving towards wells," he added

Peoria County resident Tracy Fox said she is concerned about harmful contaminates getting into her drinking water from a nearby coal ash pond associated with the E.D. Edwards power plant in Bartonville. The E.D. Edwards coal-fired power plant was recently acquired by Houston-based Dynegy Inc. The plant was previously owned by St. Louis-based Ameren Corp. 

“For half a century, Edwards has stored huge amounts of coal ash dangerously close to the Illinois River," she stressed. "It’s an 89-acre, 32-foot deep pond located next to the plant, and it has documented groundwater contamination all around the site." 

"With the toxic legacy that already exists from the coal ash pits near Pekin Lake and the Illinois River, we want certainty that the burden of clean up won’t fall to the Peoria community,” Fox added.

Will County resident Tracy Panetino is also concerned about her drinking water. Panetino lives about a mile from the Will County power generating station in Romeoville and its associated coal ash pounds. Although Panetino said contaminants contained in coal ash have not been recored in any "measurable" quantities in her area's drinking water, "the bottom line is the coal ponds are leaking and contaminating our ground[water]."

"We need long-term solutions," she said. "We need rational solutions. We need to clean (the coal ash pits) up.”   

Coal ash regulations have yet to be set at the federal level, which has resulted in a "disjoined and ineffective jumble of state-based regulations," a new Sierra Club report on coal ash reads. Back in 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed coal ash standards, but never took final action on them. The EPA, however, said in January 2014 that it would have its coal ash rules finalized by December 19 of this year. That EPA announcement came in the wake of a 2012 lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups that challenged the agency's lack of federal coal ash regulations. 

The state's current standards do not call for liners or groundwater monitoring at every coal ash site. Under the IEPA's proposed rules, which detail where and how coal ash can be stored in the state, operators of coal ash sites would have to create a number of plans involving groundwater monitoring, reducing and mitigating leaks, and sealing off storage sites when they are full, Barkley said.

The state's draft rules also call for coal ash ponds to have a single liner. At the federal level, however, the EPA's proposed regulations would require coal ash ponds to have a double liner.

Andrew Armstrong, a staff attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said the state needs to beef up its draft rules and better align them with proposed federal regulations on coal ash.

Specifically, the groups are calling on the state to place full financial obligation for coal ash pond cleanup on power plant owners. Armstrong said taxpayers should not have to shoulder any such cleanup costs. The state should also "phase out dangerous, unlined ash ponds and require a shift toward dry landfill storage," Armstrong said. Among other measures, the groups want a guarantee that the public will have time to review and comment on coal ash handling plans put forth by site operators. 

Connie Newman, a spokeswoman for the Pollution Control Board, said there is no current deadline for the final rules. The IPCB is currently "taking public comment and building a record," she said. The next step is for the proposed rules to enter the "First Notice" period, the first of three stages of the official rule-making process. Newman said it has not yet been determined when the board will adopt the coal ash waste proposal for the First Notice period.

Meanwhile, environmental leaders want to see the state take swift action to adopt tougher coal ash regulations.

“Water is one of Illinois’ greatest resources, and it is time to stand up for Lake Michigan, the Illinois River, the Middle Fork River and the many other waterways that have been fouled by coal ash contamination for decades,” Darin said. “Clean water is a right, and strong state and federal coal ash rules will help protect our water quality, safety and public health.”

Image: Associated Press

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