Environmental Almanac | Stand up for our National Scenic River

Environmental Almanac | Stand up for our National Scenic River

I value the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River for more reasons than I can count.

On the Middle Fork, my wife and I enjoyed leisurely canoe trips and catching crayfish in the shallows with our children when they were young.

On the Middle Fork, a friend and I taught ourselves to fish with fly rods (some decades ago), and over the years, we've grown — dare I say it? — adept at catching smallmouth bass, as well as many of the other 57 species of fish that inhabit the river.

On the Middle Fork, I first encountered North American river otters in the wild — up close and personal — after they were restored there in the mid-1990s, and I know where to find bald eagle nests.

On the Middle Fork, I know that freshwater mussels, one of the most endangered groups of animals on Earth, have the conditions they need to thrive.

On the Middle Fork, I learned to appreciate the variety of plant and animal life that's supported by bottomland swamps and forests with a friend who stewards the Horseshoe Bottom Nature Preserve.

I could go on. In fact, I have gone on — each of the items on my list has been the focus of at least one column I've published in the past, and each of those columns covered any number of topics that could have made another column. Such are the wonders of a complex, natural system.

The Middle Fork was available for me to discover and explore when I came to live in central Illinois in the late 1980s because others, chief among them the founders of the group that's today Prairie Rivers Network, fought for more than a decade to prevent construction of a dam that would have completely spoiled its rich natural character. That victory, one hopes, was sealed with the designation of the Middle Fork as a "National Scenic River" in May of 1989.

Another harm to the Middle Fork remains, however, and the time has come for people who value the river now to step up and fight for its health.

The harm, as you may know from Tracy Crane's excellent reporting, is coal ash — 3.3 million cubic yards of it — which is stored in three pits adjacent to the river not far north of Kickapoo State Recreation Area. (For perspective, that volume of waste would fill the Willis Tower in Chicago nearly twice.) The coal ash was produced over more than 50 years during operation of the now-shuttered Dynegy power plant and contains toxic substances like mercury, arsenic, selenium, cadmium and chromium.

Currently, pollutants from this coal ash stored next to the Middle Fork are both affecting groundwater at the site and seeping into the river itself. Worse still, the location of the pits next to the river makes them vulnerable to catastrophic failure, since they are well within the floodplain where it can be expected to meander over time.

Because of the harm being caused by the coal ash pollution, the national organization American Rivers has included the Middle Fork on its list of the 10 "Most Endangered Rivers" for 2018.

Because of the harm being caused to the Middle Fork by coal ash pollution, the state organization Prairie Rivers Network (where I'm a board member and longtime volunteer) has, with Earthjustice, filed a federal lawsuit accusing Dynegy of violating the Clean Water Act.

Because of the harm being caused to the Middle Fork by coal ash pollution, members of the Danville-area citizens group Protect the Middle Fork are coming to Champaign this Wednesday evening to present a seminar on what you can do to help. The seminar will be held in the Illinois Extension Auditorium and starts at 6:30 p.m.

Because Illinois EPA has held no public hearing regarding Dynegy's proposed fix for the harm being caused to the Middle Fork by coal ash pollution, Eco-Justice Collaborative is conducting a "People's Hearing" next Monday, June 11, in the Bremer Auditorium at Danville Area Community College from 5 to 8 p.m.

I'll be involved at these events because I value clean water and wildlife, as well as access to both of those goods for all people. If you feel the same way, or you just want to hear from people who do, I encourage you to be there, too.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.

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