Despite warnings against making comments regarding coal-ash removal at a public hearing held March 26 by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, most of the people who spoke ignored that directive.

And if there were any doubt where the more than 250 people in the audience stood on the issue, all doubt was gone after one public commenter, Cindy Shepherd with Faith In Place, asked for a show of hands: Who wants the coal ash to be moved away from the Middle Fork River?

An overwhelming majority quickly put their hands in the air.

The IEPA scheduled the hearing at Danville Area Community College’s gymnasium in order to gather public testimony on whether to grant Dynegy Midwest Generation authorization to rebuild about 1,900 feet of riverbank along the Middle Fork, upstream from Kickapoo State Recreation Area. More than 50 people signed up to make on-the-record comments.

The riverbank, which has significantly eroded, is the only thing between the river and two coal-ash impoundments on the site of the former Vermilion Power Station, which Dynegy closed in 2011.

The ash contains contaminants that can harm the environment, and Dynegy wants to stabilize the bank to avoid a collapse that could release those contaminants into the river.

But, for years, local environmental organizations have urged Dynegy, the IEPA and other government officials that the energy company should move the coal ash away from the floodplain of the river. Removal will ensure there will never be a spill and eliminate the need for future streambank stabilization projects, they argue.

On March 26, IEPA officials heard those same points being made by regular citizens from Champaign and Vermilion counties and from some local officials, too, like Urbana Mayor Diane Marlin, who emphasized that the Middle Fork is Illinois’ only “Wild and Scenic River.”

“The proposed stabilization project will violate surface water quality standards, permanently degrade the river ecosystem and interfere with recreational and other water uses,” she said to a panel of three IEPA officials as well as a hearing officer and court reporter. “The IEPA and Gov. J.B. Pritzker should completely remove coal-ash storage from the floodplain of the river. The proposal to riprap 1,900 feet of riverbank will irreparably harm the Middle Fork River and it will release contaminated sediments and soil into the river.”

Dynegy has applied for a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit to do the stabilization project but the IEPA must sign off first, which some river advocates fear is just the first step in Dynegy’s plan to leave the coal ash next to the river forever.

They would rather see an emergency bank project that would allow for a long-term plan of moving the ash.

IEPA officials urged commenters Tuesday to stick to making points only about how the 1,900-foot streambank project would affect water quality of the river and recreation on the river.

Many commenters did address those issues, telling state officials that the project would shut down recreation along the river and result in an “ugly” 1,900 feet of bank that would not look very scenic for a wild river.

Tom Monahan of Champaign, the state concessionaire at Kickapoo State Park who rents canoes, kayaks and tubes for river trips on the Middle Fork, said this construction project would probably force his business to close during the work. He said that finding a portage route where his customers could walk on land around the construction zone is very difficult.

“You have to find a take-out where you can exit your kayaks or canoes without capsizing, and there’s not a lot of good locations through there,” he said. “The canoes and kayaks are not conducive to portages. ... These are heavy. ... It just leads to a lot of factors. People will miss the take-out. So you’re going to expose people to the construction site.”

State Rep. Mike Marron also spoke, telling state officials that the river is an ecological treasure that needs to be permanently protected, and it’s also an economic boost to the area.

“People come from all over the Midwest to recreate here and enjoy this river,” the Fithian Republican said as the audience applauded.

He urged officials to consider a long-term solution that protects the river and fixes the problem “in perpetuity.”

Wayne Karplus said he has floated down the Middle Fork with his children and now plans to with his grandchildren, and he knows the power of the river is incredible, explaining how it once ripped the shoes off his feet on a calm day. He said no riverbank stabilization is going to stop the force of the river long term.

“The riverbank stabilization is at best temporary. The only long-term solution is to remove the coal ash,” he said.

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