Illinois Passes Tougher Rules on Toxic Coal Ash Over Risks to Health and Rivers

A recent analysis found Illinois was the No. 1 state for coal-fired power plants leaching unsafe levels of coal ash contaminants into groundwater.

A coal-fired power plant in Romeoville, Illinois, 30 miles outside Chicago, has four unlined ponds holding coal ash waste. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

A coal-fired power plant in Romeoville, Illinois, about 30 miles outside Chicago, has unlined ponds holding coal ash waste along the Des Plaines River. A recent analysis of groundwater tests there found five times more arsenic in the groundwater than is considered safe. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Illinois is poised to become the latest state to crack down on power plants' coal ash waste, a hazardous byproduct of coal burning and source of groundwater contamination.

The state has more coal ash ponds leaching unsafe levels of contaminants into groundwater than any other state in the nation, a recent analysis of federally mandated water testing showed. That pollution can pose health risks for humans: Coal ash can contain chemicals and heavy metals, including arsenic, mercury and lead, that have been linked to cancer, heart disease, reproductive issues and brain damage in children.

Lawmakers passed legislation this week that, once signed by new Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker, would amend the Illinois Environmental Protection Act to set stricter requirements for coal ash cleanup and to mandate public comment periods prior to closing coal ash sites. It also would give the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency funding to run cleanup programs through permit fees.

"For years, the grassroots groups have cried out for legislation and nothing's happened," said Al Grosboll, legislative director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, which argued for the bill. "It's really quite stunning that this bill has gone from relatively little opportunity to being on the governor's desk."

Illinois would follow the lead of Virginia and North Carolina, which have each enacted similar coal ash waste rules. North Carolina's law followed a coal ash spill into the Dan River when an ash impoundment collapsed in 2014. Flood risks have raised similar concerns about coal ash ponds elsewhere, including in Illinois. A more widespread problem surfaced with the recent groundwater testing analyzed by Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice that found unsafe levels of water contamination at more than 90 percent of the plants required to submit test results under federal law.

Other states, including Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, are also trying to address coal ash problems by working with industry and through legal measures.

Power plant sites where coal ash was found to be contaminating groundwater.

The approved version of the Illinois bill had broad support from environmental advocates, even though some of the provisions they sought had been softened. Introduced in January by state Sen. Scott Bennett, the original version would have required the full removal of coal ash from storage pits and would have limited the repurposing of coal ash for uses like creating cement and concrete. After resistance from Dynegy, a Texas-based electric utility and subsidiary of Vistra Energy, as well as from the Illinois Farm Bureau and local waste management association, the legislation was modified.

In the final version, coal plant owners have the option to cover the ash pits with soil and leave the waste where it is, known as "cap in place." Operators would first have to conduct an environmental review to show the method would be equally protective as removing the coal ash.

"Any person with a lick of common sense, and any scientist, will tell you if you're going to deal with pollution the first thing you have to do is remove the source," said Frank Holleman, an attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). Still, he said, the bill is a "huge step forward" for the state.

At Same Time, Federal EPA Is Loosening Rules

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency currently has a requirement that most coal ash waste sites close by October 2020, though that could change under the Trump administration. It has already relaxed standards set by the agency's 2015 Coal Ash Disposal Rule, and it could weaken guidelines further. Under the new Illinois bill, plans to close any coal ash site would have to be at least as protective as federal standards.

"There are significant gaps that remain in the federal rule," said Jennifer Cassel, an attorney for Earthjustice who advised the Illinois bill's sponsors during the amendment process.

Toxic Waters: River Pollution Sources from Coal Plants

With coal ash site closures upcoming, the urgency of regulation to ensure it's done right was a key motivating factor, Cassel said, to protect the community's water for generations to come.

"Ultimately, it's Illinois communities that are going to bear the brunt of the pollution ... if these things are not properly closed up," Cassel said. "If we don't do it right the first time, that's a major problem." And with heavy metals leaching into groundwater, problems could persist for decades. "They don't disappear, they don't degrade, they stay there—and they stay there for hundreds of years," Cassel said. 

Advocates expect Pritzker to sign the bill and said that the governor's office was encouraging throughout the process. If he does sign, the Illinois EPA would next write specific rules for ash pit closures.

Industry Has Pushed Back on Coal Ash Cleanup

"Our big hope has always been that the industry will do this on its own," said Abel Russ, a senior attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group led by enforcement experts. The cost of removing coal ash might be in the millions of dollars, he said, but it tends to be a fraction of coal plants' overall operating costs.

The industry is resisting, though. "They're in a pattern of fighting every extra expenditure as hard as they can," Russ said.

In North Carolina, for example, Duke Energy has fought to appeal rules that would require it to clean up additional coal ash sites that weren't covered by previous laws, and it said it would pass the costs on to its customers.

Other efforts to get coal plants to clean up waste pits have been more successful. In South Carolina, industry has taken on coal ash cleanup successfully, and the job is nearly complete, said Holleman of the SELC. 

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