Coal Ash Ponds

Rick DanzlThe News-Gazette Coal ash ponds at the Dynegy plant north of Oakwood Wednesday August 14, 2013.

Dynegy is going “back to the drawing board” to redesign a controversial riverbank-stabilization project along the Middle Fork River in a way that’s more compatible with the waterway’s designation as a National Scenic River, according to the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

Sarah Keller, an engineer with the corps, has been working with Dynegy officials in their quest to get work permits for the project along a section of bank that holds back toxic coal ash stored in pits on the company’s former Vermilion Power Station property.

Keller said Dynegy officials notified her in writing May 13 that they are redesigning the stabilization project as a result of discussions with the Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service, which is involved in the permitting process due to the river’s special designation.

Coal ash contains contaminants like mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute waterways, groundwater, drinking water and the air.

In the last several years since Dynegy closed the coal-fired Vermilion Power Station along the Middle Fork, the river has continued to seriously erode the banks adjacent to the coal-ash pits, risking a spill into the river.

Last year, Dynegy decided to take short-term action to stabilize the bank while the company — now a subsidiary of Texas-based Vistra Energy — continues working with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency on a permanent closure plan for the former power station property and coal-ash pits.

New legislation is moving forward in Springfield that could affect that closure plan and more than 80 other coal-ash sites around the state.

At a news conference Tuesday in Springfield, state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, and state Reps. Mike Marron, R-Fithian, and Carol Ammons, D-Champaign, discussed a bill introduced by Bennett, which has already passed the Senate, that would require the IEPA and the Illinois Pollution Control Board to establish rules and regulations for handling coal ash on sites like the Dynegy property.

The bill has also been approved by the House Energy and Environment committee with bipartisan support and now awaits a full vote in the House.

But in regards to Dynegy’s short-term bank-stabilization plans, the input of local citizens may have played an important role in its decision to go back to the drawing board.

In an email, Keller said the National Park Service has voiced its continued concern over the previously proposed bank-stabilization design that would have included large white rock rip rap, stretching along the bank for 2,000 feet and would have required two construction seasons and closure of the river to recreation to make way for a construction site in the river channel.

The park service said the plan would result in an “adverse determination” under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, according to Keller, who added that, as a result of that input, Dynegy acknowledged it will have to reduce the scope of the proposed project and choose a more environmentally friendly method in order to comply with the park service’s requirements.

“We spent some time brainstorming possible stabilization methods, and Dynegy indicated they would consult with alternative design firms that specialize in bioengineering and ‘greener’ stabilization approaches,” Keller said. “Dynegy indicated their desire to choose a stabilization method that would not project/encroach into the river.”

She also said that Dynegy is “proactively working on a plan for emergency stabilization in the event there is a catastrophic loss of bank this season,” which has been a fear of government officials and others as the Middle Fork banks are more at risk of erosion during heavy spring rains.

“I have not seen the plan, but they have told me their goal is for it to be easily removable, short-term, and temporary in nature,” Keller said of the emergency stabilization design.

On March 26, more than 200 people attended an IEPA hearing held to gather public comments on Dynegy’s stabilization project, which the state agency must sign off on prior to the Corps of Engineers granting a permit.

Most of the more than 50 people who made formal comments objected to the project as not compatible for a national scenic river. Many called for the IEPA to demand that the coal ash be removed altogether from the three pits that are adjacent to the Middle Fork as the best long-term solution for protecting the environment.

River advocates have feared that Dynegy’s stabilization project was a first step in its long-term plan to leave the coal ash next to the river forever. River advocates prefer more of a stop-gap stabilization until Dynegy can move the coal ash, which was stored in the pits for decades as a byproduct of the coal burning process at the former power plant.

Lan and Pam Richart, co-directors of Champaign-based Eco-Justice Collaborative, have been actively campaigning for the removal of the coal ash for years. Lan Richart said the news that Dynegy is going back to the drawing board was a surprise victory.

“All along, we’ve been saying that the project was too large, too destructive and wasn’t a good idea, and a precursor to leaving the ash in place,” he said.

Richart said it’s a significant victory in the fight to protect the Middle Fork.

“We firmly believe that the hundreds of letters sent to the National Park Service by the public helped solidify the agency’s position that the stream-bank stabilization originally proposed was not compatible with the river’s designation as a National Scenic River,” he said. “This is a good decision for the river and also for the people who enjoy and depend on it. We remain committed to continuing our campaign calling for the clean up of coal ash along the river.”

Eco-Justice Collaborative, Prairie Rivers Network and other private citizens have also been campaigning for passage of Bennett’s bill, which would require the state to develop rules for regulating the storage of coal-ash waste and the closure of coal-ash sites. 

Currently, Illinois has no such regulations, and the laws that do come into play when closing such sites apply only to groundwater. The legislation would also require companies to provide financial assurances — that coal-ash sites will be cleaned up even if the property owners abandon them.

Marron said there are about 84 sites where coal ash is stored in Illinois, so it’s imperative to have clear, concise guidelines to help alleviate environmental damage and encourage safe and responsible storage of coal ash.

Lan Richart said there are upwards of 50 unlined, leaking coal-ash impoundments on power plant sites throughout the state, and federal rules — the only ones currently in force in Illinois — do not include a permit process for closing these pits, nor a means of enforcement.