Toxic waste from coal ash pits leaching into Illinois’ only National Scenic River
Toxic coal ash waste can be seen leaking into the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River. (Prairie Rivers Network)
Michael Hawthorne, Contract Reporter January 31, 2018
Seven years after Dynegy Inc. scrapped one of the last coal plants in downstate Illinois, environmental groups are accusing the company of failing to prevent toxic waste stored nearby from seeping into the state’s only National Scenic River.
Citing problems documented in the Houston-based company’s own internal reports, the nonprofit Prairie Rivers Network announced Wednesday that it plans to file suit, accusing Dynegy of repeatedly violating the federal Clean Water Act. The group said it decided to take more aggressive action because federal and state regulators have failed to address longstanding problems at the shuttered plant near Oakwood, about 25 miles east of Urbana.
Pictures taken by the group show orange- and purple-hued muck leaching from the banks of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River as it meanders past the former Vermilion Power Station, a coal-fired facility built in the mid-1950s by Illinois Power and later purchased by Dynegy.
“These illegal discharges could not be more obvious,” said Jenny Cassel, an attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization representing the Prairie Rivers Network.
Before Dynegy closed the plant in 2011, the two companies deposited more than 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash into pits next to the river — enough to fill the Empire State Building nearly 2½ times. Testing by Dynegy and the Prairie Rivers Network shows the multicolored waste oozing into the water contains dangerous levels of heavy metals found in coal ash, including arsenic, chromium, iron, lead and manganese.
“This toxic waste needs to be cleaned up,” said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer for the network, based in Champaign. “We want to make sure that Dynegy can’t just walk away from its responsibility. We all have a right to a clean Vermilion River.”
Chicago Tribune Graphics
What’s left of the old power plant rises above the river about a mile downstream from a launch that draws thousands of paddlers, kayakers and tubers to the area every year. It also is along a 17-mile stretch of the river protected in 1989 under the federal National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, a designation based in part on the dozens of endangered and threatened species in the river and surrounding woods.
In 2012, Dynegy was cited by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for water pollution violations at the site. The case is still open.
“We remain focused on working with state and federal regulatory agencies to provide long-term protection of the storage areas at Vermilion, the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River and groundwater resources,” the company said in a statement.
The company has suggested it could solve the problem in Vermilion County by capping the waste pits to prevent rain and snowmelt from washing coal ash into the water. But in November, Dynegy sent state regulators a report that estimated the normal flow of the Middle Fork is eroding the river banks by up to 3 feet a year, making it more likely the toxic slurry will be exposed below the proposed caps.
Because the power plant has been closed for so long, the ash pits are exempt from federal regulations enacted by the Obama administration in 2015. Opposition from Dynegy and other energy companies prompted the Trump administration last year to reconsider the safeguards; a separate proposal in Illinois also has been sidetracked.
The environmental groups plan to sue Dynegy under a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows citizens to challenge companies about water pollution violations but requires a 60-day notice.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter @scribeguy