Report shows toxic contamination at coal ash sites throughout Illinois

Andrew Rehn of the Prairie Rivers Network presents the report "Cap and Run: Toxic Coal Ash Left Behind by Big Polluters Threatens Illinois Water" at a news conference at the Illinois state capitol building in SpringfieldJack Brighton/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting
Andrew Rehn of the Prairie Rivers Network presents the report "Cap and Run: Toxic Coal Ash Left Behind by Big Polluters Threatens Illinois Water" in a packed room at the Illinois state capitol building in Springfield.

A new report published by several state environmental groups shows severe pollution of groundwater at nearly every known coal ash storage site in Illinois.

The report states that groundwater tests show unsafe levels of toxic chemicals and heavy metals at 22 of 24 Illinois coal-fired power plants. The tests were done by the companies that own the sites, collated by the environmental groups, and released this week.

A chart showing Illinois coal plants and information on groundwater contamination for each site.
The report provides data on 24 Illinois coal power plants for which groundwater reports are available. Tests at all but two reveal contamination beyond federal and state standards.

Coal industry data on coal ash contamination was made public for the first time this year under federal coal ash rules.

Coal ash is a mix of solid waste from burning coal. It contains unsafe levels of toxins like arsenic, boron, lead, chromium, and selenium, which are harmful to human health, fish, and wildlife. At most sites the ash is mixed with water and dumped in unlined pits.

The report said that groundwater at the 22 sites had multiple contaminants in excess of state or federal water quality standards.

The closed Dynegy coal ash storage site in Vermilion County by the Middle Fork River is one of the contaminated sites. The site contains 666 million gallons of coal ash in three ponds and leakage into the river is already apparent.

“Because of the cooling water needs of coal plants, most dumped their ash next to water bodies,” said Jenny Cassel, an attorney with Earthjustice. “The only thing separating those ash dumps from the rivers and lakes we treasure is a thin embankment of earth.”

Groundwater tests required by federal coal ash rules

Federal coal ash rules require groundwater testing at active sites still accepting waste. Results must be posted on public websites the companies maintain.

“The new groundwater report collects the most recent data from the companies or the EPA, and puts it in one place,” said Andrew Rehn, a water resources engineer at the Prairie Rivers Network. “It paints a clear picture that something needs to be done about coal ash.”

a table listing coal plants in Illinois and how many coal ash ponds are at each plant
Illinois coal plants except Joliet 9 have anywhere from one to 12 coal ash ponds. Chart by Jack Brighton

The 45-page report, Cap and Run: Toxic Coal Ash Left Behind by Big Polluters Threatens Illinois Water, was published by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice, the Prairie Rivers Network, and the Sierra Club.

Federal coal ash rules don’t apply to sites that were retired or inactive when the rules were made in 2015. The gap in regulation means the public is in the dark about the oldest and most contaminated ash ponds – including many of the Illinois sites – and allows the sites to continue polluting groundwater.

There are more than 1,000 coal ash sites in the U.S., and at least 83 sites in Illinois.

“The vast majority of these ash ponds in Illinois are unlined,” Cassel said. “There is little or nothing stopping the pollution from leaching into groundwater. And that is what we found.”


For example, groundwater tests at the 60-year old Waukegan Generating Station show chromium levels of more than 480 times the Illinois groundwater quality standard, and arsenic levels of more than 2000 times the standard.

The report reveals the groundwater testing data from every Illinois site.

“What this report shows is the need for Illinois to step up and do something about coal ash,” Rehn said, “especially as we approach an era in which these power plants are closing.”

Coal ash regulation stalled in Illinois

Federal coal ash rules set standards for active sites. The rules require composite liners under ash ponds, and monitoring for potential contamination. But the federal rules don’t apply to many of the oldest and dirtiest sites, and enforcement is left to the states.

After a 2010 statewide assessment of 24 Illinois coal power plants found widespread contamination, the Illinois EPA proposed more stringent state coal ash rules. But since March 2017 the process has been stalled at the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

Commenting on the report, the Illinois EPA said regardless of any potential state coal ash rules, the agency “regulates coal ash ponds in numerous ways to prevent and remediate groundwater contamination.”

“The Agency has also been enforcing Illinois groundwater quality standards, which are equivalent to, or more stringent than, the federal national primary drinking water regulations,” the statement said.

But environmental groups say Illinois has let power companies off the hook, allowing them to close leaking coal ash sites by merely capping the ponds while the ash continues to pollute water resources.

More coal ash sites closing soon

The coal industry is retiring many aging coal power plants. Many coal ash ponds have already been closed. Closure of ash ponds means the power company either removes the ash, or caps the ponds and leaves them in place.

A summary provided by the Illinois EPA shows the agency approved 23 coal ash pond closures since 2011. Coal ash was removed from only one site. The other 22 ponds were capped with the ash left in place. Only four of the capped ponds have liners to protect groundwater.

“One can cap an ash pond in place, if it is not saturated with water, or one can remove the ash.” Cassel said. “For the vast majority of these ash dumps, the owners have proposed to close them in place, leaving them sitting in or near groundwater.”

The environmental groups want a requirement for removing ash from all sites contaminating groundwater. They also want financial guarantees from the companies in the event of future damage, and a process for public input on closure plans.

Aerial view of the Vermilion Power Station coal ash ponds next to the Middle Fork River
Since 1955 the Vermilion Power Plant has stored toxic coal ash in three ponds just yards from the Middle Fork Vermilion River near Oakwood, Illinois. The river runs through Kickapoo State Park, visited by more than a million people each year.

They see the closure of the three coal ash ponds at Dynegy’s Vermilion Power Station as an opportunity to test the commitment of state agencies to community concerns.

Pollution from the ponds is threatening the Middle Fork, Illinois’ only federally designated National Scenic River. The riverbank is eroding rapidly under the ponds, increasing the risk of a massive spill into the river.

Vermilion County officials, business groups, and environmentalists are worried that Dynegy is preparing to close the ash ponds by capping them in place. And they’re calling for a public hearing to voice their concerns to the agencies considering Dynegy’s plan.

In commenting on the new report, the Illinois EPA acknowledged that “public outreach was not done for all the coal ash ponds” that have been closed. But the agency said it is now “committed to public notice and public hearings for actions related to the Vermilion Power Station.”

The environmental groups say they want more than just an airing of public concerns. “We need to implement solutions that stop ongoing groundwater contamination from the coal ash permanently,” Rehn said, “and the public deserves a voice in decisions about how coal ash will be handled in their neighborhood.”

With more closures coming at coal ash sites at the Waukegan, Will County, Joliet 9, Duck Creek, Edwards, Havana, Hennepin, Powerton, Coffeen, Dallman/Lakeside, Newton, and Wood River power plants, those decisions will affect water quality for communities across Illinois.

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