DANVILLE – Some homeowners near Kickapoo State Park blame a nearby fly-ash dump for tainting their drinking water, and one county board member is pushing for new state laws to better regulate where and how ash is disposed.
"They should have never dumped it here – close around property and wells," JoAnn Osterbur said. She lives near the more than 380,000 tons of fly ash dumped since 1995 in a large ravine on private property in an area known as Grays Siding, just north off U.S. 150, west of the Vermilion County Fairgrounds and Kickapoo State Park.
Fly ash is a byproduct of coal combustion – ash produced when coal is burned. The byproduct contains potentially harmful elements such as arsenic, selenium, cadmium, chromium, copper and mercury, said Christopher Lowe, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.
If these elements leach out from a disposal site, they can harm the environment, including plants and animals, Lowe said. And humans are at risk, because the metals can contaminate groundwater that leads to drinking water supplies, a problem the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been tracking across the country.
Some of the most serious cases of fly-ash contamination have occurred in northern Indiana and Maryland.
In Town of Pines, Ind., population about 800, a local power plant had been disposing of fly ash in a nearby landfill for about 19 years, when in 2000, residents identified problems with their drinking water. Eventually, 63 wells were found to be contaminated with high levels of various elements and another 100 were suspected of contamination.
Maryland has multiple cases. Near Baltimore, about 2.4 million tons of fly ash was dumped over time in a sand and gravel mine. Elements seeped into the water supply and contaminated at least 23 private wells. Unsafe levels of arsenic, beryllium and lead were found.
Just last month, Maryland passed some of the most stringent regulations regarding the disposal of fly ash, according to Lowe. He hopes other states will follow.
Power plants across the nation that burn coal produce about 100 million tons of fly ash annually, according to Rich Kinch with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. All of it must be disposed of or used somehow.
But the fly ash in the Grays Siding area came from the Bunge plant in downtown Danville, where coal is burned in the company's daily operations. Bunge contracted with a private company that hauled and dumped the fly ash in the Grays Siding area on private property owned by Robert Porter and Jack Salts, according to Paul Purseglove, manager of field operations for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.
Porter and Salts could not be reached for comment.
Purseglove said dumping fly ash at Grays Siding is legal. All that's required by state statute is for the agency to be notified of the dumping and for the site to be regularly tested for possible contamination by the dumper and the IEPA, which tests the site annually.
Nationally, Kinch said, there are about 600 fly ash disposal units. Of those, the agency has identified 20 proven "damage cases," where groundwater was contaminated. All but one of the 20 were disposal units that did not have a lining, a base layer that prevents the elements from leaching.
However, of the 600 units, Kinch said, others without liners have not done any damage. Kinch said the level of concentration of the waste in the disposal sites likely plays a role.
No lining was constructed before the fly ash started being dumped at the Grays Siding site, which is not a commercially constructed landfill.
The dark gray fly ash covers about a 5- to 8 area within a wide, deep ravine about 200 yards across, and 50 feet deep.
Residents at Grays Siding fear elements are leaching out and contaminating groundwater and harming the environment. The south edge of the fly-ash fill butts up against property owned by one of the residents, whose house sits within 50 yards of the fill.
Purseglove said the original plan was to cap the fly-ash pile once it was full and cover it with six to 12 inches of dirt and then erect a building on top.
But last year, Purseglove said, the agency's testing detected boron, and the agency told Bunge to remove some of the material.
But that has not happened. The pile has not been capped, and Bunge, which did not return calls seeking comment, is now dumping its fly ash at an out-of-the-area mine reclamation site, which is also permitted by state law but requires a permit through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Purseglove said.
Removing some of the material and capping the fly ash at Grays Siding has stalled, he said, because one of the private property owners, Salts, is in bankruptcy proceedings.
According to federal documents, Salts, who owns Jack Salts Trucking in Williamsport, Ind., filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February in Indiana. And according to Vermilion County court records, Salts has a breach of contract case against Bunge that was filed in November.
In the meantime, the fly ash sits exposed to rainwater and other elements.
That's a very dangerous situation, according to Lisa Evans, an attorney for Earthjustice, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit public interest law firm.
Water infiltrating from the top can take the hazardous chemicals in the fly ash and contaminate sources of drinking water, such as nearby wells. The site also is near a pond at Kickapoo State Park and less than a mile from the Middlefork and Salt Fork rivers. Osterbur and other residents said the ravine drains into Pond Six at Kickapoo, which is about 150 yards from the Middlefork River.
Evans said sometimes it takes a while for the hazardous chemicals to leach out, so problems are not always immediately known.
"Chemicals leach out at different rates," she said, adding that sulfate often leaks first, then boron, then other materials. The IEPA tests have already detected boron.
When hauling to the site first began, Osterbur and other neighbors never thought it could be a potential contaminant.
"We thought it was corn waste," she said. Bunge Milling's Danville site is the largest corn dry-mill operation in the world. "We never thought anything about it," she said, until a neighbor who lived closer learned it was fly ash.
Since then, the Osterburs and others, whose water comes from private wells, have been concerned and had their water tested twice by the IEPA. The Osterburs' water was fine, but the water at two other houses, which are closest to the fly-ash pile, have tested positive for high concentrations of lead, Purseglove said. Lead is another metal that can be found in fly ash.
He said the Illinois Department of Public Health has instructed the residents not to drink from their wells.
Bill and Carolyn Frye's house is one of the two with high lead levels. The Fryes are certain the fly ash is the cause, because the first test revealed their water was fine. Now it's not, it tastes different and smells like sulfur, said Bill Frye, who wants Bunge held liable.
However, Purseglove said the agency cannot know for certain if the fly ash is the cause of the elevated levels of lead. More environmental testing and studying of the groundwater flows would have to be done, he said, to know for sure.
The IEPA tested water from the faucets in the homes, not water directly from the wells. Purseglove said another common cause of high lead levels in a home's water could be the plumbing system, especially if it's old and has lead solder in the pipes.
Purseglove said the debate over the use of coal combustion byproducts is ongoing. Of most concern, he said, has been the leaching of boron from fly-ash dumps.
"That's the one we need to keep track of, because boron has adverse environmental effects," he said. "It's toxic to plants and trees."
And so, he continued, if fly ash is used to fill a ravine and boron leaches out, then trees downstream will die.
Purseglove said the agency would like to test the private wells in the area and put monitoring wells closer to the fill to determine whether the groundwater is being contaminated.
But until the bankruptcy case works its way through the court system, none of that will happen.
"So we are in negotiations with the bankruptcy court and Bunge to get a proper cap put on this thing and some groundwater monitoring," Purseglove said.
In the meantime, Vermilion County Board member Lori DeYoung is lobbying for the state to consider legislation to regulate the disposal of fly ash more closely.
State Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, introduced House Bill 4172 on Nov. 7; it would amend the Environmental Protection Act, requiring any fill project with fly ash to be at least 500 feet from residences or residential water wells. It also would require the fly ash to be capped within 30 days after the material is deposited and would require a site approval process with a public comment period.
Lowe said fly-ash disposal has been a neglected concern, primarily because most regulations and environmental concerns about coal-fired power plants focus on airborne emissions of sulfur and mercury.
"A lot of us in the scientific community believe (fly ash) is a concern that's only going to grow," especially since there is a push to use more coal for our energy needs.
"With more ash produced in the future, the question is, how is it going to be handled and how can we come up with ways to handle it properly?" he asked.