Contamination Found in Water Near Illinois Coal Ash Dumps

Analysis based on testing mostly conducted by energy companies shows that water near all but two coal plants in Illinois is contaminated with toxic waste. The Chicago Tribune on November 28 reported that a compilation of industry-supplied data from 24 Illinois coal plants shows harmful levels of arsenic, chromium, lead, and other heavy metals in nearby groundwater.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said 10 of the sites pose a danger to drinking water supplies of nearby communities.

Plants noted in the report include the Waukegan Generating Station on Lake Michigan, which is owned by NRG Energy. The Waukegan plant, formerly owned by Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), has two unlined coal ash ponds onsite, along with an unlicensed landfill.

Another site highlighted in the report is a quarry in Joliet, used by ComEd and other utilities as a coal ash dump until NRG converted a nearby coal plant to burn natural gas in 2016. Coal ash pits at another NRG coal plant on the Des Plaines River in Romeoville also were named.

“We’re reaching a turning point as energy companies are proposing to leave coal ash in floodplains of rivers and exposed to groundwater,” Andrew Rehn, a water resources engineer at the Prairie Rivers Network, one of the groups that worked on the report, told the Tribune. “We need stronger rules that provide permanent protection with a financial guarantee, and give the public a voice in these decisions.”

Analysis of Industry-Supplied Data

Nonprofit groups who produced the report based on industry-supplied data from 24 coal plants include the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club. The groups are asking J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat and the state’s governor-elect, to require coal plant owners to set aside money to clean up their coal ash pits.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) earlier this year revised its rule on coal ash disposal. The rule, which concerns coal combustion residuals (CCRs), including coal ash, was changed to give utilities and states more flexibility in how coal ash is managed. The changes also gave utilities more time to clean up ash ponds, until October 2020, instead of the original April 2019 date. In October, the Hoosier Environmental Council in Indiana, along with five other groups, filed suit in an effort to force the Trump administration to uphold the rules ordering utilities to clean up ash ponds by April 2019.

Many Illinois coal plants have disposed of coal ash in a process where it is mixed with water and then pumped into unlined pits. The EPA in its technical studies to develop the CCR rule found that closure-in-place or closure-by-removal of coal ash were the best options to protect human health and the environment. It also recognized that closure-in-place was the most-cost-effective option.

The cleanup is ongoing at many sites, with thousands of workers involved at dozens of coal plants across the country. Estimated individual basin closure costs range from tens of millions to more than $4 billion, depending on the size of the basin, the closure option, and the time frame for closure, according to an assessment prepared by AECOM for Dominion Energy in 2017, in response to legislation in Virginia.

Pollution in Vermilion River

Environmental groups in May sued Dynegy, charging the Texas-based company—which merged with Vistra Energy earlier this year—with violating the federal Clean Water Act by polluting the Vermilion River near the Vermilion Power Station in Oakwood, Illinois. The Vermilion plant, which was retired in 2011, had three unlined coal ash pits. The Tribune earlier this year reported that Dynegy, the last owner of the plant, prepared internal reports that showed material from the pits that is seeping into the river contains arsenic, chromium, lead, manganese, and other heavy metals found in coal ash. The paper said Illinois environmental regulators confirmed the report’s findings more than 10 years ago, but the pollution has continued.

Illinois’ power market is deregulated. Companies sell electricity generated in the state on the open market. Because of that, company shareholders, rather than ratepayers, would be liable for paying for the cleanup of coal ash dumps in the state.

The administration of Pat Quinn, the state’s former Democratic governor, proposed more stringent regulations for coal ash disposal in 2013. The rules have not been enacted. The Tribune said, “Faced with an intense lobbying effort by energy lobbyists, a state rule-making panel dominated by members appointed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has repeatedly delayed action on the proposal.”

Even the original CCR rule adopted under the Obama administration has been challenged in court. In August, a federal appeals court said the original rule on coal ash disposal was not strong enough and had no regulations to prevent leaks at ash ponds and landfills. The court ordered the EPA to adopt new rules to protect people and wildlife, but environmental groups and energy analysts say instead that the Trump administration’s revisions have weakened federal requirements.

New Jersey-based NRG and Houston, Texas-based Vistra Energy own most of Illinois’ coal plants. The Tribune reported email correspondence from the companies said their executives were reviewing the report’s analysis of their data, which was provided to the EPA. A Vistra spokeswoman, Meranda Cohn, said, “We are committed to doing the right thing.”

The newspaper said David Knox, an NRG spokesman, questioned the methodology of the report’s authors, and said some contamination could be from sources not associated with coal ash dumps. He said NRG has complied with Illinois-mandated management plans, and has submitted plans to excavate coal ash and move it out of local floodplains.

Vistra owns unlined ash pits in the floodplain of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, which is considered Illinois’ only national scenic river. Vistra has said it wants to consolidate its waste and stack large rocks along a portion of riverbank more than 600 yards long. Local groups and community officials have called for public hearings on the plans.

Cleanup Underway in Southeast

Several U.S. utilities have faced scrutiny about their coal ash disposal since disastrous spills in Tennessee in 2008, and in North Carolina in 2014. Many are shoring up ash ponds and enclosures at their facilities. Millions of tons of coal ash have been excavated and removed from sites near waterways and other sensitive areas in recent years, particularly in the Southeast.

George Hamrick, senior vice president of coal combustion products for Duke Energy, in a recent interview told POWER, “You hear a lot now about delaying the CCR rule and things like that. We recognize the need to go ahead and close these basins. We’re proceeding in a disciplined and organized path. Once we get the permits from state and local agencies, we lay out a plan to safely close these basins. There is no reason for us to delay closing these basins.”

Duke Energy manages 60 coal ash basins across its system, and already has excavated 18 million tons of coal ash in North Carolina. The utility plans to close all its coal ash basins by 2029, according to Paige Sheehan, a company spokesperson.

—Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).