Just four miles up the shore from the public beach in Waukegan, Illinois, sits the Waukegan Generating Station, a formerly coal-powered electricity plant. According to Dulce Ortiz, a Waukegan resident, the coal ash—a byproduct of coal power generation—left behind by the plant is a “ticking bomb” that threatens not only her community’s water supply, but all of Lake Michigan, as well.
Ortiz, a founder of the environmental justice nonprofit Clean Power Lake County, has worked for a decade to ensure that the coal ash waste at Waukegan Generating Station gets cleaned up. In June 2022, they completed the first task: closure of the plant’s last two coal-burning units.
But coal ash still fills underground impoundments and ponds at the site, where residents are worried that toxic metals like arsenic, lead and mercury, linked to certain cancers and neurological problems, could be leaching into groundwater. According to a 2019 ruling by the Illinois Pollution Control Board, coal ash-derived boron and sulfate exceeding the board’s regulations have been detected in Waukegan’s groundwater. Because of the pollution, Ortiz doesn’t let her children swim in nearby Lake Michigan.
The Waukegan Generating Station sites are just one example of the 111 coal ash waste sites within two miles of Great Lakes shores—many of which threaten the health of the environment and nearby communities. While coal ash waste sites are scattered around the country, those nearest to Great Lakes shores are of special concern, as more than 30 million people rely on the lakes for clean drinking water. According to estimates by Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group, many of the coal ash sites are in violation of a federal rule regulating coal ash pollution, but little has been done by the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the rule.
Earthjustice estimates that there are more than 57 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash waste at plants near the Great Lakes, enough to fill more than 17,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
“We’ve had a lot of industries that polluted our land, made their profits, and just left us with some huge messes that we as taxpayers have had to clean up,” said Ortiz. “They have not been held accountable.”
Violating Federal Guidelines
The Coal Combustion Residuals rule, which the EPA passed in 2015, requires coal plants to safely dispose of coal ash and clean up any coal ash sites that threaten groundwater quality. However, a report by Earthjustice last November revealed that there has been “pervasive noncompliance” with the rule, as over 90 percent of regulated coal plants continue to contaminate groundwater.
Only some of the waste ponds bordering the Great Lakes are regulated by the CCR rule—any sites that did not receive new coal ash after 2015 are exempt. And Earthjustice estimates that the majority of the sites that are regulated are in violation of the CCR rule, anyway, due to insufficient cleanup methods and a failure to restore groundwater quality.
Earthjustice estimates that fifty-six coal ash waste sites within two miles of the Great Lakes are completely unregulated by the CCR rule, though that number is probably low, said Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice attorney, as the number only includes sites that Earthjustice and the EPA have been able to identify.
“The [CCR] rule leaves about as much waste unregulated as it regulates,” said Evans. “The wealth of ash that is not regulated still poses a threat, as much or even more than regulated waste.”
Earthjustice in August sued EPA over the unregulated coal ash—which it has estimated to be in at least 287 dumps in 38 states—enough to fill freight train cars that could stretch around the earth twice. On Friday, as part of a proposed settlement with Earthjustice and six other environmental groups it represented, including Clean Power Lake County, EPA published a notice in the Federal Register that it will by May 5, 2023, decide whether to close the massive loophole, and if it does, complete any coal ash rule changes by May 6, 2024.
The action comes after Inside Climate News, WMFE in Orlando and NPR brought national attention to the EPA’s coal ash loophole in late 2021 and early 2022.
“You can’t restore groundwater quality by cleaning up half of the coal ash at a site, while leaving the other half uncontrolled,” said Abel Russ, senior attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “Yet that’s exactly what we see at many sites under the current framework. A rule addressing unregulated landfills would go a long way toward fixing the problem and protecting our aquifers and streams and local communities.”
EPA did not immediately provide comment.
At the Waukegan plant, there are three coal ash waste sites of concern, said Ortiz: two ponds and one other deposit. In December 2021, Midwest Generation, the company that runs the plant, submitted plans to clean up one of the waste sites by excavating the coal ash and relocating it to a permitted landfill. The other pond, they said, would be filled with soil, covered with plastic and left in place.
There are no plans to clean up the third coal ash waste site at the Waukegan plant, because it has received no new coal ash since 2015 and is therefore not covered by the CCR rule. According to Midwest Generation representative Dave Schrader, that coal ash deposit was left behind by a previous owner.
Schrader said in an email that Midwest Generation has proposed remediating the site, but that “regulators will ultimately decide which areas should be remediated and approve the means by which to do it.”
“Contrary to a months-long misinformation campaign driven by a small but vocal group who do not trust the regulatory process, MWG‘s plan is scientifically and historically proven to be a safe, sound, and effective way to protect groundwater in Waukegan for generations to come,” said Schrader in an email.
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Midwest Generation has held two public meetings about the issue, but Ortiz is frustrated with the lack of action. “They’re not listening to the community or what we want,” said Ortiz. Clean Power Lake County and Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor will try to pass additional legislation this year that would require Midwest Generation to be responsible for a full cleanup of the site.
“My line in the sand is drawn that [Midwest Generation] has to do the cleanup,” Taylor told Inside Climate News. “I’m not negotiating that.”
Threatening the ‘Third Coast’
The delayed cleanup at the 111 waste sites could lead to contamination of groundwater and the Great Lakes, Evans said. Since groundwater eventually flows into the lakes, controlling the leaching of chemicals into groundwater would help to protect the lakes, as well.
Ortiz says she worries about the cap-in-place strategy Midwest Generation has announced due to the high winds and erosion caused by Lake Michigan’s waves. In December, Earthjustice and other environmental groups based in the Great Lakes region delivered a letter to the EPA stating that leaving coal ash in place indefinitely would “leave the Great Lakes region at continued risk of irreparable harm,” which would only become “more likely with with rising lake levels and shoreline erosion due to the climate crisis.”
A 2022 report from the Environmental Law & Policy Center found 12 hotspots where high lake levels and strong storms could impact industrial facilities, contaminated sites and communities along Lake Michigan, including the cluster of industrial facilities in Waukegan.
The coal ash impoundments are an environmental justice issue, as well: Of the 16 regulated plants that sit along the shores of the Great Lakes, 11 are located in communities where the majority of residents are low income, people of color or both. Seventy percent of the plants nationwide where coal ash is either contaminating or near groundwater are located in disproportionately low-income neighborhoods or communities of color, as well.
Waukegan, for example, is 53 percent Hispanic and 18 percent Black. Families in the city are in survival mode, Ortiz said. “Their goal is to feed their family, to provide an education and to work,” she said. “Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of time left for ensuring that our communities are thriving, or that no one is polluting the air or the water.”
There are five Superfund sites within the City of Waukegan, including an asbestos disposal area, a contaminated manufacturing plant and an unlined landfill.
“We don’t want this coal plant to be the sixth,” said Ortiz.
Staff writer James Bruggers contributed to this report.