EPA says it's monitoring coal ash sites

NEWTOWN — A report by two nonprofit environmental watchdog organizations maintains that Illinois congressmen and the state Environmental Protection Agency are not doing enough to protect the state's citizens and environment from potential hazards of coal ash impoundments, including two in Vermilion County and one in Douglas County.

But IEPA officials maintain that the state agency is actively engaged in monitoring all three sites to identify and address any contamination that could harm the environment, including water resources.

According to the report released Wednesday by the Prairie Rivers Network based in Champaign and the Environmental Integrity Project based in Indianapolis, Illinois has the second highest number of contaminated coal ash dump sites in the nation. Coal ash is the residue left when coal is burned. It can contain metals that can be harmful to the environment and drinking water with documented cases of both throughout the nation. Coal ash impoundments garnered national attention in 2008 when the dikes of an 1.6 billion-gallon ash impoundment in Kingston, Tenn., collapsed flooding nearby homes.

In Illinois, power plants, like the now-closed Dynegy-owned Vermilion Power Plant near Newtown, can pick from several ways to handle their ash per state regulations. The Vermilion plant has three ash ponds where the coal-burning byproduct was disposed through the years.

The second coal ash site in Vermilion is between Danville and Oakwood along U.S. 150 in an area known as Grays Siding. Coal ash from Bunge Milling's operation in downtown Danville was trucked to the Grays Siding area and dumped into a large ravine on private property from about 1995 through January 2006.

In Douglas County, the site of concern is a previous underground coal mine where Alpena Vision Resources is reclaiming the surface area of that mine, which covers 178 acres and includes a coal refuse pile and "impoundments used for disposal of the fine coal waste material from the coal preparation process," according to the report. The Alpena plan includes filling the largest impoundment with 500,000 tons of ash and covering it with 2-4 feet of cover material that will include grain processing residue rather than soil, according to the report.

At all three of these sites, the Prairie Rivers and EIP report claims that coal ash is threatening nearby residents through either water or air contamination.

According to the IEPA, the state has 24 power plants that have a total of 83 coal ash impoundments and one permitted landfill where coal ash is being disposed. Of those 83, 68 are active, 31 are lined, and 28 have groundwater monitoring, according to the IEPA.

Two years ago, the IEPA began assessing the groundwater at the 24 power plants and any potential threat to potable wells near them. And where groundwater contamination has been found, cleanup has been required of the responsible party, according to IEPA officials.

But Prairie Rivers and the EIP claim that IEPA has failed to act on coal ash threats to residents living near these coal ash disposal sites, stating in its report that the IEPA's own testing found contaminants commonly found in coal ash in groundwater at more than 22 sites in the state, "but regulators have done little to prevent or correct" the problems. The Prairie Rivers and IEP report focuses on the specific problems at 10 of the 22 sites, including the two in Vermilion and one in Douglas. Prairie Rivers and IEP said two-thirds of the impoundments don't have groundwater monitoring and don't have liners, which keep contaminants from leaching out of the impoundments. And dams holding the impoundments at most of the 83 sites have no permits and have not been inspected for safety or stability by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

The two organizations also criticize 11 U.S. congressmen from Illinois for voting to block the U.S. EPA from implementing more stringent coal ash regulations across the nation. The group does not include U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, whom Traci Barkley with Prairie Rivers said has consistently voted in favor of the U.S. EPA's regulatory efforts.

Vermilion Power Plant site: The IEPA's recent monitoring efforts of power plant impoundments found conditions that exceed groundwater quality standards around the coal ash impoundments. Testing found elevated levels of boron, manganese, sulfate, iron and more, according to IEPA officials. When the agency began its statewide review of sites two years ago, it determined the Vermilion Power Plant site had high potential for groundwater contamination due to the geology in the area and the presence of 20 private wells within a mile radius.

"So we immediately required them to verify the location of any private wells," said Dennis McMurray, spokesman for IEPA. That was done in June 2009, and they also installed groundwater monitoring wells, which identified the conditions that exceed drinking water standards. McMurray said state officials believe that the high levels can be attributed to the coal ash impoundments, but one year of monitoring must be done to provide conclusive data. That has started and will conclude in April 2012, according to IEPA officials.

But the initial groundwater monitoring has determined that all 20 private wells in the area are "upstream" from the flow of groundwater and not at risk, according to IEPA officials. In the meantime, Dynegy is compiling a groundwater management proposal for the IEPA, detailing how the issue will be addressed if the year of testing does conclusively prove that the impoundments are contaminating groundwater.

McMurray said initially Dynegy was not cooperative, but that's changed. And if the company doesn't cooperate with us, he said, by not submitting a plan to do monitoring and corrective action, the agency will pursue enforcement.

Grays Siding site: The issue is different, because the coal ash was being used as structural fill to fill a ravine, and under Illinois law, it's not considered waste.

But, responding to concerns of local residents, the IEPA has tested water samples from nearby residential wells two times, and found that lead exceeded standards in two wells. The Illinois Department of Public Health recommended the two well owners not use their water for drinking or cooking. And both residences are using bottled water for their drinking and cooking. But according to IEPA officials, "the chemicals in question are naturally occurring and without groundwater samples from prior to ... the fill, it is difficult to determine if water quality has changed."

Last year, Bunge purchased the private property that contains the ash-filled ravine, which leads to nearby Pond 6 in Kickapoo State Park, and has completed several phases of groundwater monitoring to determine whether the fill has affected groundwater there. But results have been inconclusive, according to the IEPA.

In the meantime, Bunge has removed some of the coal ash and has devised a plan for capping the fill, but under the state's current environmental protection law, it's outside the IEPA's jurisdiction to approve or reject measures proposed at such "fill" sites, according to IEPA officials.

But officials said they have read the plan anyway and provided feedback to Bunge.

Jeff Turner, Champaign regional inspector with IEPA, said current state law gives the agency very little oversight in these types of coal ash fills. Turner said 12 inches of soil is the minimum required to cap such a fill, and Bunge is planning to cap it with several feet of clay instead, which would further keep precipitation from penetrating through to the coal ash.

Douglas County site: Nearby residents have filed complaints of air and water contamination, according to the Prairie Rivers report, which claims possible environmental impacts in a nearby stream, and notes that several households with underground wells are "downstream" from the coal ash site.

McMurray said the IEPA did an inspection of the site in October 2010 in response to resident complaints. He said no violations were found during that inspection, and the agency continues to monitor the ongoing reclamation process there.

Prairie Rivers and the EIP are calling for the U.S. EPA to implement comprehensive coal ash regulations that would regulate the byproduct as a special waste with standards that all states would have to follow, like requiring liners at disposal sites, covers, monitoring, cleanup standards and the phase out of ash ponds. Certain safe uses of coal ash, like additive in cement and roofing shingles, would be further encouraged.

According to the IEPA's ash impoundment strategy progress report in February 2010, the agency now requires new ash ponds to have liners, and the agency supports the U.S. EPA's initiative for stricter controls on coal ash.

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