Illinois Power Plants May Face New Rules For Managing Toxic Coal Ash
Updated at 4:15 p.m., Sept.30 with comments from NRG Energy
Illinois is considering additional rules for how power companies manage the toxic ash that coal-fired power plants produce.
In April, the state’s Pollution Control Board adopted detailed regulations that determine how companies may close designated coal ash ponds or pits. The board established a new process to solicit rules for historic ash fill, temporary storage piles, dust monitors and the way it defines an environmental justice community.
The most significant part of the potential new rules address historic ash fill, said Jenny Cassel, a senior attorney with Earthjustice’s coal program.
“It hasn’t always been dumped in well-defined ash pits or landfills, but has been used as fill,” she said. “It’s sort of dumped here and there, sometimes used to build the berms of ash ponds themselves. And we know there’s a lot of it.”
Cassel cites a case filed in 2012 in which the Illinois Pollution Control Board eventually found coal ash fill likely polluted groundwater for years at Midwest Generation facilities in Joliet, Powerton, Waukegan and Will County.
“All of them have these areas where coal ash was just not inside an ash pond, but rather was dumped around the site itself,” she said. “We have imagined and now confirmed that is, in fact, part of what’s contributing to the contamination at these sites.”
A spokesperson for NRG Energy, which now owns the Midwest Generation facilities, said the company is preparing permit applications in accordance with regulations and will work closely with regulators to implement the new rules "while focusing on the well-being of our communities, the environment, and maintaining communication with the public and other stakeholders."
Ninety percent of Illinois coal-fired power plants had unsafe levels of toxic pollutants in their groundwater, according to a 2018 report from the Sierra Club. Using ash to fill in different parts of coal power plant properties is a widespread practice in the industry, said Andrew Rehn, a civil engineer at Prairie Rivers Network, an environmental group in Illinois.
“It’s complicated because the ash they produce changes,” he said. “They might burn different coal, they’ve definitely changed treatment technology since they started operating. The better we clean the air, usually that means it ends up in the waste ash stream.”
An engineering report detailing the history of construction at the Wood River Power Station in East Alton reviewed by St. Louis Public Radio reveals coal ash was one of the materials used in the embankments for the site’s east ash pond.
That worries Toni Oplt, chair of the Metro East Green Alliance, especially if the property were to flood and wash some of that material into the Mississippi River.
“There are people that depend on that water for drinking,” she said. “There’s a whole tourism business built in that area around the fact that those are river towns.”
Commercial Liability Partners, which owns the Wood River site, did not respond to a request for comment.
In their filing with the Pollution Control Board, environmental groups mainly propose property owners remove coal ash that’s been used as fill or install groundwater monitoring in some cases.
New energy legislation implications
The potential for more rules directed at managing the toxic pollutants from coal plants comes after Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed energy legislation into law that forces all privately owned coal plants to eliminate carbon emissions by 2030, which will likely mean their closure.
New regulations around temporary storage piles and dust emissions account for this impending reality, Cassel said. Coal power plant sites in the state will need to be remediated, which could include removing coal ash from established pits, she said.
“There simply may be logistical situations where they can’t fit the exact amount [of ash] they’ve removed from the ash pond directly into a truck,” Cassel said. “The idea with these piles is that they are a way station, between the ash that’s being removed from the impoundment and if need be the final destination.”
Environmental groups propose temporary ash pile volume shouldn’t exceed the amount of coal ash that would be extracted over three months. They also want monitors to ensure coal ash dust doesn’t drift from a specific site.
The implications of the energy legislation underscore how important finalizing these additional rules are for communities where coal plants are still operating or have recently closed.
“For us, time is of the essence,” said Dulce Ortiz, co-founder of Clean Power Lake County. “We need to push the Illinois Pollution Control Board not to take their time in making a decision.”
The new rules could also affect the plans some energy companies and others have to redevelop former coal plant properties. Target is already hiring workers for a new warehouse at the old Crawford Generating Station in Chicago.
Both Rehn and Cassel said that construction at one of these sites without any remediation could either kick up coal ash or lock it into the ground. Oplt shares those concerns when considering Wood River and how she has seen local leaders think of the site as an ordinary redevelopment project.
“The caveat here is that this isn’t like any other property,” she said. “It wasn’t even on their radar that there could be huge environmental and health problems here.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.