By Michael Hawthorne
Toxic waste contaminates water sources near all but two of the coal-fired power plants in Illinois, according to a new analysis based largely on testing conducted by energy companies.
The compilation of industry-supplied reports from 24 coal plants highlights how federal and state officials have failed for decades to hold corporations accountable for the millions of tons of ash and other harmful byproducts created by the burning of coal to generate electricity.
Most of the waste in Illinois has been mixed with water and pumped into unlined pits, where testing shows harmful levels of arsenic, chromium, lead and other heavy metals are steadily oozing through the ground toward lakes and rivers, including the state's only national scenic river.
One of the sites is the Waukegan Generating Station on Lake Michigan, a former ComEd coal plant now owned by NRG Energy that is ringed by two unlined ash ponds and an unlicensed landfill. Another is a Joliet quarry where ComEd and other companies dumped coal ash until NRG overhauled a nearby coal plant in 2016 to burn natural gas.
Ten of the sites pose a danger to the drinking water supplies of nearby communities, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, including the Joliet dump and ash pits surrounding another NRG coal plant along the Des Plaines River in Romeoville.
Nonprofit groups behind the new report, including the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club, are urging Democrat J.B. Pritzker, the state's next governor, to require coal-plant owners to stop polluting the state's protected waters and to set aside money to clean up their pits of hazardous coal ash.
"We're reaching a turning point as energy companies are proposing to leave coal ash in floodplains of rivers and exposed to groundwater," said Andrew Rehn, water resources engineer at the Prairie Rivers Network, another group that worked on the report. "We need stronger rules that provide permanent protection with a financial guarantee, and give the public a voice in these decisions."
Because the state's energy system is deregulated and companies sell electricity generated in Illinois on the open market, shareholders, rather than ratepayers, would be forced to pay the tab for cleaning up the coal ash dumps.
Former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's administration proposed more stringent safety regulations in 2013. 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.
Federal officials also have been slow to act.
In August, a key federal appeals court handed down a scathing ruling that regulations adopted during the Obama administration weren't tough enough and did nothing to prevent leaks at scores of ash pits near shuttered coal plants.
The court ordered the U.S. EPA to adopt new rules that adequately protect the health of people and wildlife. But the Trump administration is pushing to replace the Obama-era regulations with an even weaker set of requirements.
Most of the coal plants in Illinois are owned by two companies, New Jersey-based NRG and Houston-based Vistra Energy. Executives are still reviewing the analysis of data their companies provided to the EPA, according to emailed responses to questions from the Tribune.
"We are committed to doing the right thing," said Meranda Cohn, a Vistra spokeswoman.
David Knox, an NRG spokesman, took issue with the methodology used by the report's authors and said some of the contamination could come from other sources, not the company's coal ash dumps. Knox said the company has complied with state-mandated management plans; he also acknowledged that federal regulations could require more aggressive measures.
Some of the monitoring wells, intended to record background or naturally occurring levels of metals near NRG plants, are located in areas where coal ash is buried, making it more difficult to measure how the waste is affecting groundwater that flows away from the sites, said Jennifer Cassel, an attorney with EarthJustice, another group behind the report. Even in those cases, Cassel said, the company's testing shows higher levels of metals in groundwater flowing through the ash pits compared with concentrations found in background wells.
NRG has submitted plans to excavate some of its coal ash and move it out of local floodplains. Environmental groups contend the company's proposals stop short of eliminating the hazards.
Vistra-owned sites include unlined pits in the floodplain of the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, the state's only national scenic river. State regulators and industry engineers are worried the meandering, fast-moving prairie stream is eroding its banks so quickly it could unleash a torrent of coal ash and water, similar to disasters in Tennessee and North Carolina where waste dumps collapsed and caused millions of dollars in ecological damage.
Instead of making plans to dig out the toxic muck, like companies in other states have been forced to do, Vistra wants to consolidate its waste and stack giant rocks along a portion of riverbank more than six football fields long. The company is pushing to speed up a review of its proposal, but local groups have enlisted citizens and public officials who are calling for public hearings and more rigorous scrutiny of Vistra.
"We maintain a hearing is the only way to ensure the voices of all stakeholders are heard, not just Vistra's," said Lan Richart, co-founder of the Champaign-based Eco-Justice Collaborative.
Advocates note that coal ash already has been removed from the shuttered Crawford coal plant in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. "It can be done," Cassel said. "We just need our leaders to hold these companies accountable throughout Illinois."
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