Residents of Vermilion County are urging the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to force the cleanup of millions of cubic yards of toxic coal ash sitting on the banks of a federally protected river.
Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-burning, much like the ash left behind in a campfire, but it contains a variety of toxic metals. The substance is stored in three open pits on the grounds of a retired power plant, where it was generated. Environmental advocates argue it is a disaster waiting to happen.
“It’s a bad idea to store toxic waste adjacent to a river, but it was an inexpensive, easy way to dispose of it,” said Lan Richart, an aquatic ecologist with the Eco-Justice Collaborative.
The collaborative has helped rally environmentalists and residents behind the push to have the ash moved far away from the Middle Fork of Illinois’ Little Vermilion River. The 17.1-mile stretch of waterway is the only one in Illinois recognized by the 1968 Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.
The Vermilion Power Station operated from the 1950s until 2011. Its ownership changed hands a number of times in the intervening decades — it is now managed by the Texas-based energy company Vistra.
Environmental advocates and residents contend the ash pits have already begun polluting the Middle Fork.
The alleged contamination site is visible from the river and can be arrived at by canoe or kayak. From the water, a lone smokestack is the only visible evidence of the retired power plant that sits on the grounds beyond the grassy slope that separates this portion of the river from the coal ash ponds. Smalls streams of groundwater seep out of the eroded embankment where the embankment gives way to dirt. They cascade down rust-colored trails, collecting in murky orangey pools at the edge of the water before slowly diluting into the Middle Fork.
“The vivid red is presumably iron,” Richart said. “We’ve been able to determine there are many other things: There’s arsenic, lead, boron, manganese, a variety of toxic chemicals and metals leaching through the soil and dripping down into the river.”
The group Prairie Rivers Network sued in May, alleging the coal ash seepage is violating clean water laws.
The Illinois EPA has issued two violation notices to Vistra, most recently in June, after an official stream survey identified the discolored water seeping from the eroded bank that buffers the ash ponds as creating “offensive conditions” on the river.
Despite those violations, advocates are worried the state EPA will ultimately give Vistra permission to move forward with a cheaper, more short-term cleanup plan.
The company has an October deadline to submit a proposal to the agency for how it wants to handle the ash.
“In many parts of the country regulatory agencies are allowing utilities to leave their coal ash in place, to ‘cap it,’” Richart said. “And then, the utilities move on.”
Cap-and-leave is a strategy for closing coal ash ponds that involves placing some kind of lid or cap over the pits, while leaving the ash itself in place.
Kevin Green, a lifelong Middle Fork fisher and canoer, has been on the Vermilion County Board for nearly 15 years. According to Green, anything but the complete removal of the coal ash would be a short-sighted solution.
“[Vistra’s] pushback is that it would just cost too much to properly take care of the situation,” Green said.
Based on standard costs and the average size of coal ash ponds in the U.S., a 2013 report by the Rainforest Action Network estimated pre-emptively removing coal ash from a disposal pond could cost up to $35 million.
Green said the coal ash is a 50-year-old problem, and the risk of weather erosion is making it more pressing.
“There’s just major potential for all that [coal ash] to get washed into the river,” Green said. “The river always wins, so we know what’s going to happen in the future.”
The national organization America’s Rivers deems the threat of massive contamination incident so imminent that it named the Middle Fork one of the country’s most endangered waterways of 2018.
Although removing coal ash can be expensive, cleaning up spills and breaches has proved more costly: The cleanup following a breach at a plant run by the Tennessee Valley Authority in 2008 in Kingston, Tennessee cost upwards of $1.2 billion.
This month, Vistra released a document called “Vermilion Environmental Commitment.” It says Vistra is “ready, willing, and able” to proceed with projects to both stabilize the riverbank and close the coal ash ponds. Vistra would not clarify the nature of its plan for permanent coal ash pond closure.
“The wild card is the timing of the regulatory approvals combined with ongoing intervention by outside groups intent on slowing it down for their own agenda,” the document reads.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Vistra says the company does not agree with the pollution claims made in the ongoing Prairie Rivers Network lawsuit. The company also denies the allegations of breaches of clean water and pollutions laws outlined in the Illinois EPA’s violation notices.
However, an Illinois EPA spokesperson said Vistra has until mid-September to submit proposed compliance agreement regarding the violation notices. The agency said if the notices go unresolved, Vistra could be prosecuted.
On the national level, a July decision from acting secretary for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Andrew Wheeler loosened regulations on coal ash storage and dumping for companies that produce the substance. The Trump Administration proposed the changes earlier this year. It reversed parts of a 2015 Obama Administration rule that established the first-ever federal standards for the handling and disposal of coal ash. Environmental groups said the decision made large companies less accountable for toxic waste they produce, while putting lives and the environment at risk.
Richart, the aquatic ecologist with the Eco-Justice Collaborative, said his group and other advocates support a project to stabilize the riverbank, but that Vistra’s proposal will too drastically change the Middle Fork.
“What is being proposed is a massive reconstruction of over a third of a mile of National Scenic River, in order to avoid moving toxic waste,” reads an Eco-Justice Collaborative statement on the riverbank stabilization proposal.
The statement said a much less intrusive solution is possible, especially if the coal ash is removed rather than capped and left in place.
Richart said he’s concerned not only about the environmental impact of the ash, but that a quick-fix plan from Vistra would saddle Illinois residents with the contaminated groundwater and the fallout of an eventual breach.
“The people who are making the decisions by and large don’t know the river, it’s one thing to see it in plans or photographs, or you know, a permit application. It’s quite another to experience it and realize what value there is and what’s at stake.” Richart said. “Vistra has a corporate relationship with the river, and people in Vermilion County and the surrounding area have a personal relationship with it. One’s short term; one’s long term.”
Max Green is a producer at WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter at @MaxRaphaelGreen.